January 11, 2006

Living Large with a bag of Doritos

At the end of last year, just in time for Christmas, a technological child was quietly reborn. A GUI technology that was largely supplanted by the Web, Web Services, and a whole lot more has experienced its first major version release in more than a decade. What is the Christmas rebirth you ask? The X Window System X11R7.0 and its companion X11R6.9. Of course, you already knew that. Alex, I’ll take obscure 1990’s technology for $400. The two releases use the same source code but the X11R7.0 features a modularized and autotooled source code whereas X11R6.9 takes the traditional path with the imake build system. The latest releases are the work of more than fifty volunteer contributors working under the release management team of Kevin Martin, Alan Coopersmith, and Adam Jackson, with the support of Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems.

X Window, X Terminals, and PC X Servers are all memories of a long ago time when I did real technical work for a living and were the basis of my first foray in the market research business. Many a night I spent pulling cables, compiling C code, and munching on a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos watching the wheels of technology turn slowly and display the results on my terminal. Only real geeks knew about X, and I was a qualified DECNet and TCP/IP geek living large in the glory filled client/server IT cloud of the early 1990s.

So what is the deal here? An excuse to ramble? Well, yes and no. X Window was incredibly relevant when networked computers were typically servers and workstations running UNIX or VMS and the X Terminal was the poor man’s thin client/workstation. Prior to browsers, this was one of the few ways to graphically access remote applications. It was also a time in which TCP/IP was expensive third party add-on software for the desktop (PC that is), and only native in UNIX (definitely not cheap) environments out of the box. Hence, accessing a remote graphical application was pretty darn cool. Times have certainly changed, and most people wouldn’t recognize an X Terminal if they saw it, however, these crude solutions (by today’s standards) would become the forbearer of what for many the Internet achieved.

With UNIX in a matured, if not slightly retrenching state and the market for X Terminals as robust as that for IBM Selectric Typeballs, one could wonder why any further investment in the technology is warranted? The short answer is Linux. The change in how the X Window code is sourced and compiled is also reflective of 10+ years advancement in code development technology and is more line with what techno geeks want to play with anyway. Yes, the X devoted probably could benefit from enhancements, but the real growth opportunity here is for Linux, and Linux geeks, who more than likely are running Linux on a PC and therefore still would not know what an X Terminal is. The irony is that X was developed to liberate applications from a specific display device and make them available across the world of burgeoning 10 Mbps Ethernet. Yet with the deployment demographics of Linux, it would seem that in the future, an ever increasing number of these applications will be displayed on the same device all of the time, namely the PC monitor. The mean distance traveled by an X enabled application may soon be measured in millimeters as opposed to meters or kilometers. How Ironic.

Nevertheless, as fun as waxing poetic about the past is, today is a new time, one in which the basic fabric of computing is light years ahead of where it was 10 years ago and the need for specific technology has changed a great deal. Yet the notion of X Window, the remote access to applications and its community source derived basis, proved harbingers of how we would conduct computing and its development across the board in the not too distant future. So, here’s too you X, happy rebirth; I need to move another cable here in my home network…by the way, anyone seen my Doritos?