The X-Windows Disaster

The UNIX-HATERS Handbook, Including a UNIX Barf Bag

How to make a 50-MIPS Workstation Run Like a 4.77MHz IBM PC

If the designers of X-Windows built cars, there would be no fewer than five steering wheels hidden about the cockpit, none of which followed the same principles — but you’d be able to shift gears with your car stereo. Useful feature, that. - Marus J. Ranum, Digital Equipment Corporation

X-Windows is the Iran-Contra of graphical user interfaces: a tragedy of political compromises, entangled alliances, marketing hype, and just plain greed. X-Windows is to memory as Ronald Reagan was to money. Years of “Voodoo Ergonomics” have resulted in an unprecedented memory deficit of gargantuan proportions. Divisive dependencies, distributed deadlocks, and partisan protocols have tightened gridlocks, aggravated race conditions, and promulgated double standards.

X: The First Fully Modular Software Disaster

X-Windows started out as one man’s project in an office on the fifth floor of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science. A wizardly hacker, who was familiar with W, a window system written at Stanford University as part of the V project, decided to write a distributed graphical display server. The idea was to allow a program, called a client, to run on one computer and allow it to display on another computer that was running a special program called a window server. The two computers might be VAXes or Suns, or one of each, as long as the computers were networked together and each implemented the X protocol.

The Nongraphical GUI

XCalc After Several Resizings

The Motif Self-Abuse Kit

X gave Unix vendors something they had professed to want for years: a standard that allowed programs built for different computers to interoperate. But it didn’t give them enough. X gave programmers a way to display windows and pixels, but it didn’t speak to buttons, menus, scroll bars, or any of the other necessary elements of a graphical user interface. Programmers invented their own. Soon the Unix community had six or so different interface standards. A bunch of people who hadn’t written 10 lines of code in as many years set up shop in a brick building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that was the former home of a failed computer company and came up with a “solution:” the Open Software Foundation’s Motif.

Ice Cube: The Lethal Weapon

One of the fundamental design goals of X was to separate the window manager from the window server. “Mechanism, not policy” was the mantra. That is, the X server provided a mechanism for drawing on the screen and managing windows, but did not implement a particular policy for human-computer interaction. While this might have seemed like a good idea at the time (especially if you are in a research community, experimenting with different approaches for solving the human-computer interaction problem), it can create a veritable user interface Tower of Babel.

Using these toolkits is like trying to make a bookshelf out of mashed potatoes.

- Jamie Zawinski

X Myths

X is a colletion of myths that have become so widespread and so prolific in the computer industry that many of them are now accepted as “fact,” without any thought or reflection.

Myth: X Demonstrates the Power of Client/Server Computing

At the mere mention of network window systems, certain propeller gheads who confuse technology with economics will start foaming at the mouth about their client/server models and how in the future palmtops will just run the X server and let the other half of the program run on some Cray down the street. They’ve become unwitting pawns in the hardware manufacturers’ conspiracy to sell newer systems each year. After all, what better way is there to fore suers to upgrade their hardware than to give them X, where a single application can bog down the client, the server, and the network between them, simultaneously!

Myth: X Makes Unix “Easy to Use”

Graphical interfaces can only paper over misdesigns and kludges in the underlying operating system; they can’t eliminate them.

Myth: X Is “Customizable”

…And so is a molten blob of pig iron. But it’s getting better; at least now you don’t hasve to use your bare hands. Hewlett-Packard’s Visual User Environment is so cutting-edge that it even has an icon you can click on to bring up the resource manager: it pops up a vi on your .Xdefaults file! Quite a labor-saving contraption, as long as you’re omniscient enough to understand X defaults and archaic enough to use vi. The following message describes the awesome flexibility and unbounded freedom of expression that X defaults fail to provide.

Myth: X Is “Portable”

…And Iran-Contra wasn’t Arms for Hostages.

Myth: X is “Device Independent”

X is extremely device dependent because all X graphics are specified in pixel coordinates. Graphics drawn on different resolution screens come out at different sizes, so you have to scale all the coordinates yourself if you want to draw at a certain size. Not all screens even have square pixels: unless you don’t mind rectangular squares and oval circles, you also have to adjust all coordinates according to the pixel aspect ratio.


display = XOpenDisplay("unix:0");


root = RootWindow(display, DefaultScreen(display));


win = XCreateSimpleWindow(display, root, 0, 0, 256, 256, 1,


(the next client tries to connect to the server)


display = XOpenDisplay("unix:0");


cmap = DefaultColormap(display, DefaultScreen(display));


    favorite_color = 0; /* Black. */
/* Whoops! No, I mean: */
favorite_color = BlackPixel(display, DefaultScreen(display));

(client dumps core & falls into the chasm)


display = XOpenDisplay("unix:0");


    struct XVisualInfo vinfo;
if (XMatchVisualInfo(display, DefaultScreen(display),
8, PseudoColor, &vinfo) != 0)
visual = vinfo.visual;


/* Is that a SubstructureRedirectMask or a ResizeRedirectMask? */


(server dumps core & falls into the chasm)

X Graphics: Square Peg in a Round Hole

Programming X-Windows is like trying to find the square root of pi using roman numerals.

- Unknown

The PostScript imaging model, used by NeWS and Display PostScript, solves all these horrible problems in a high-level, standard, device independent manner. NeWS has integrated extensions for input, lightweight processes, networking, and windows. It can draw and respond to input in the same arbitrary coordinate system and define window shapes with PostScript paths. The Display PostScript extension for X is intended for output only and doesn’t address any window system issues, which must be dealt with through X. NeXTSTEP is a toolkit written in Objective-C, on top of NeXT’s own window server. NeXTSTEP uses Display PostScript for imaging, but not for input. It has an excellent imaging model and well designed toolkit, but the Display PostScript server is not designed to be programmed with interactive code: instead all events are sent to the client for processing, and the toolkit runs in the client, so it does not have the low bandwidth, context-switching, and code-sharing advantages of NeWS. Nevertheless, it is still superior to X, which lacks the device-independent imaging model.

X: On the Road to Nowhere

X is just so stupid, why do people use it? Beats us. Maybe it’s because they don’t have a choice. (See Figure 2)

Official Dangerous Virus Notice Distributed at the X-Windows Conference

Official Notice
Post Immediately
X x
X x
X x
x X
x X
x X
Dangerous Virus!First, a little history. The X window system escaped from Project Athena at MIT where it was being held in isolation. When notified, MIT stated publicly that “MIT assumes no responsibility…”. This is a very disturbing statement. It then infiltrated Digital Equipment Corporation, where it has since corrupted the technical judgement of this organization.After sabotaging Digital Equipment Corporation, a sinister X consortium was created to find a way to use X as part of a plan to dominate and control interactive window systems. X windows is sometimes distributed by this secret consortium free of charge to unsuspecting victims. The destructive cost of X cannot even be guessed.X is truly obese — whether it’s mutilating your hard disk or actively infesting your system, you can be sure it’s up to no good. Innocent users need to be protected from this dangerous virus. Even as you read this, the X source distribution and the executable environment is being maintained on hundreds of computers, maybe even your own.Digital Equipment Corporation is already shipping machines that carry this dreaded infestation. It must be destroyed.This is what happens when software with good intentions goes bad. It victimizes innocent users by distorting their perception of what is and what is not good software. This malignant window system must be destroyed.Ultimately DEC and MIT must be held accountable for this heinous *software crime*, brought to justice, and made to pay for a *software cleanup*. Until DEC and MIT answer to these charges, they both should be assumed to be protecting dangerous software criminals.Don’t be fooled! Just say no to X.X-Windows: …A mistake carried out to perfection. X-Windows: …Dissatisfaction guaranteed. X-Windows: …Don’t get frustrated without it. X-Windows: …Even your dog won’t like it. X-Windows: …Flaky and built to stay that way. X-Windows: …Complex non-solutions to simple non-problems. X-Windows: …Flawed beyond belief. X-Windows: …Form follows malfunction. X-Windows: …Garbage at your fingertips. X-Windows: …Ignorance is our most important resource. X-Windows: …It could be worse, but it’ll take time. X-Windows: …It could happen to you. X-Windows: …Japan’s secret weapon. X-Windows: …Let it get in *your* way. X-Windows: …Live the nightmare. X-Windows: …More than enough rope. X-Windows: …Never had it, never will. X-Windows: …No hardware is safe. X-Windows: …Power tools for power fools. X-Windows: …Putting new limits on productivity. X-Windows: …Simplicity made complex. X-Windows: …The cutting edge of obsolescence. X-Windows: …The art of incompetence. X-Windows: …The defacto substandard. X-Windows: …The first fully modular software disaster. X-Windows: …The joke that kills. X-Windows: …The problem for your problem. X-Windows: …There’s got to be a better way. X-Windows: …Warn your friends about it. X-Windows: …You’d better sit down. X-Windows: …You’ll envy the dead.

Things That Happen When You Say ‘X Windows’

I was digging through some old papers, and ran across a 15 year old “XNextEvent” newsletter, “The Official Newsletter of XUG, the X User’s Group”, Volume 1 Number 2, from June 1988. Here’s an article that illustrates how far the usage of the term “X Windows” has evolved over the past 15 years. (Too bad The Window System Improperly Known as X Windows itself hasn’t evolved.)

Don Hopkins is a migrant user interface designer and graphics programmer. Don received a BSCS degree from the University of Maryland while working as a researcher at the Human Computer Interaction Lab. Don has worked at UniPress Software, Sun Microsystems, the Turing Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Kaleida Labs, and Interval Research. He ported SimCity to NeWS and X11 for DUX Software. Don wrote the chapter on the X-Windows Disaster. (To annoy X fanatics, Don specifically asked that we include the hyphen after the letter “X,”, as well as the plural of the word “Windows,” in his chapter title.)



User interface flower child. Pie menus, PizzaTool, SimCity, The Sims, Visual Programming, VR, AR, Unity3D / JavaScript bridge.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Don Hopkins

Don Hopkins

User interface flower child. Pie menus, PizzaTool, SimCity, The Sims, Visual Programming, VR, AR, Unity3D / JavaScript bridge.