X Window System

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“X is the only windowing system that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.”
~ Oscar Wilde on X-Windows

X logo
But hey, our logo is way cool.

X-Windows (colloquially known as the X Window System) is the standard graphical interface for computers running Leegnux. It is a technological marvel, constructed by geeks far deeper than thou. It does amazing and wonderful things that you wouldn't have thought possible. It runs on every operating system you can think of and several you wish you hadn't. It will display your applications to the same computer, the one next to you or one running on the friggin' moon.

It doesn't run your new video card, though it might next year or the year after. Maybe. Why don't you write a driver for it?

X-Windows does not determine the look and feel of applications running on it. As such, it affords the sufficiently technical user almost unlimited powers to customise it, though it somehow remains impossible to get it looking as nice as Mac OS X or even Windows XP.

An interface smörgasbörd!

X-Windows (spelt with a hyphen and with an S on the end) works on the basis of "mechanism, not policy." This means that no application quite works with any other, and each one shows the artistic flair and graphic design skills of a furry-toothed programmer whose computer permanently displays a screen full of green-on-black terminal windows and a minimised Firefox for his porn. But this is a feature, not a problem.

Just as X-Windows reverses the meaning of "feature" and "problem", it reverses the meanings of "server" and "client" (your screen serves resources to programs, making them the clients. You have to be a very deep geek with amazing powers of contemplation indeed to see why this is obviously and elegantly sensible), "black" and "white", "up" and "down" and "good idea" and "bad idea."

Every X application looks different to every other X application. This is less of a problem now that everyone programs to GNOME or KDE, so now you only have to choose between two completely different and clashing interface styles instead of ten. Yay. But, as mentioned above, this is a feature rather than a problem.

There's not one but two clipboards, and three if you're using GNOME or KDE. They're reasonably easy to keep separate unless you're using Firefox or Opera — which everyone does — because both of those deliberately mangle them. HA-ha!

Design principles of X-Windows

In 1984, two mad scientists at MIT set out the early principles of X. We here translate these into modern terms for your convenience:

  • Do not add new functionality until an implementor threatens to pull your funding without it.
  • It is as important to decide what a system is not as to decide what it is. Do not serve all the world's needs; rather, support what you feel like and tell them they just need to write extensions themselves if they want to actually do anything useful. (See Mozilla Firefox.)
  • Worse is Better leads to faster ship dates.
  • If a problem is not completely understood, don't bother solving it.
  • Make complexity someone else's problem if at all possible. If not, see the above principle.
  • Provide mechanism rather than policy. Dammit, Jim, I'm a programmer, not a graphic designer! (Though why we're presuming other deep geeks are is a mystery for the ages.)
  • They laughed at us in user interface design class ... but who's laughing NOW!!1!!elvene!!

X has largely kept to these principles since. This combination of perennial inadequacy and theoretical fixability is the same stick-and-carrot addictive formula that's made the Microsoft Window System the hit it is today. Every attempt to fix or replace X has failed for this reason: to replace X, a new thing would need to become X, and it could not become X without being as crap as X. Thus the virus perpetuates itself.

Minor problems with X. Insignificant, really. Don't worry yourself.

X is ridiculously overengineered and top-heavy and was famed around the time of its inception in the 1980s for its ability to make a $10,000 50MHz graphical workstation work almost as fast as a 4.77MHz PC-XT. Fortunately, over the last twenty years Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X have become as stupidly overblown and bloated as X started out, further demonstrating how X has led the way. These deep geeks, they can see technology twenty years ahead. X itself is now a lightweight protocol compared to all the eyecandy, God help us.

The X server manipulates the video card directly. (Assuming you can get a driver for your video card this year instead of next year.) So if X goes down, it not only TAKES ALL YOUR WORK WITH IT, it may mean you have to reboot* your otherwise-uncrashable PC to get the screen working again, even though Linux hasn't actually crashed itself. This makes the whole system as reliable in practical use as the Windows install you thought you were blissfully rid of when you put in the Ubuntu CD. But technically, Linux itself hasn't crashed. So that's all right then.

* or change the TTY and try to pwn it from the command line. Which, even if it works, will leave you thinking "why the fuck would any sane human want to have to dig down to this level?" But hey — you could always have to ... EDIT YOUR WINDOWS REGISTRY INSTEAD!! HA-ha!


Are completely batshit insane now. Really. They've become the open source equivalent of the homeless guy with the tinfoil hat screaming at invisible alien tormentors. Just ask them about X.Org and watch 'em go. "YOU! YOU'VE BEEN TALKING TO THEM, HAVEN'T YOU! YOU'RE CONSPIRING WITH THEM! THOSE GUYS! THEY STOLE IT ALL! THEY PUT A RADIO IN MY HEAD! LINUX/BSD WEENIES! I'LL SHOW 'EM! HELL YES!" The Cathedral and the Bizarre. The best theory anyone's come up with is that David Dawes finally lost it trying to fix his own broken modeline configuration.

XOrg swoosh
And now we've landed the even cooler logo, with the swirly thing. And that's what Dawes gets for trying to kick out the one guy who actually wrote the damn system for fifteen years. HA-ha!

The X.Org Foundation

One of the MIT mad scientists started this. He is very, very sorry for everything to do with X and is working very hard indeed to fix it, with the help of everyone else who was kicked out of XFree86 for not being completely batshit insane. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. They're currently in a lard-ass competition with Mac OS X, but should end up about as shiny eventually. But really fat.

The Xorg Server

What we need now, right, is a new version of xlogo that does an animated X.Org Foundation logo in OpenGL. Spinning ring, flashing lens flare. I realise it's late in the release cycle, but you know that one mention of this on the list and we'll have three working demos ready for 6.9/7.0. It should also use the Render extension. I'm not sure how, but it should.


The screensaver is a killer app. It's the best thing about X-Windows. It's better than drugs. You'll want to have a spare computer running X just to run the screensaver.

The most important question in X user design

Which is the better porn browser: Opera or Firefox? And does paying your Opera registration fee count as rebellion against open source conformity?

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