How NeWS became yesterday's news in the window system wars

X co-designer David Rosenthal looks back at why his other project failed

A couple of weeks after its anniversary, one of the original engineers behind X has explored why it succeeded where rivals – one of which he co-developed – failed.

David S H Rosenthal's modestly titled blog post, X Window System At 40, is interesting, not just because Rosenthal is a distinguished computer scientist who worked on windowing systems for both Sun and Nvidia, where he was the fourth employee. Nor even because he wrote key parts of the X window system itself, such as the ICCCM, or that he still holds patents for some of it. Not even because he links to Reg coverage of the anniversary – twice.

We think it's noteworthy because Rosenthal not only designed and implemented key parts of X – we're not referring to it as X11, because his involvement started long before X version 11 – but he also co-developed one of the main rivals to X in its early days, the Network Extensible Windowing System, or "NeWS" (pronounced nee-wuz) for short. This means he brings unique perspective to his analysis that more modern ones lack – and we're including our own here.


A few years ago, Rosenthal also wrote a brief History of Window Systems, which also discusses NeWS, along with Smalltalk creator Alan Kay's original concepts for windowing UIs, noting:

As you can see, NeWS essentially implemented the whole of Kay's recommendations, up to and including HyperCard. And yet it failed in the marketplace, whereas the X Window System has been an enduring success over the last three decades.

NeWS was invented by ex-Googler James Gosling, also the inventor of Java. Rosenthal calls NeWS "amazing technology," although admittedly he has some reason for bias here – he literally wrote the book. It was implemented in the same Display Postscript programming language that NeXT computer used in NeXTstep – the OS that later became Mac OS X OS X macOS. At the time, it was widely admired and X often derided – for instance, see chapter 7 of the Unix Haters' Handbook [PDF], entitled "The X-Windows Disaster: How to Make a 50-MIPS Workstation Run Like a 4.77MHz IBM PC."

That chapter was compiled by Don Hopkins, who should know: He invented pie menus on NeWS and later ported SimCity to the environment. The Reg FOSS desk asked Hopkins for his take on this. The proposal he suggested last year was:

Run a web browser directly on the hardware as low level as possible, and implement the entire desktop user interface and window manager in JavaScript, using standard modern web technologies!

Mind you, saying that, following on from Rosenthal's post, Hopkins also pointed us to Gosling's short essay "Window System Design: If I had it to do over again in 2002" [PDF], which describes something that in places is quite similar to Wayland.

If a key architect of both NeWS and X thinks that there are solid reasons why X beat the more sophisticated NeWS, and the inventor of NeWS thinks that the way to do it today is something much simpler, then we wouldn't dare argue. (But, quietly, we'd still love to see Arcan and Lash#Cat thrive as well.) ®

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