XFree86 dust-up questions X11 model
Client-server paradigm needs up-ending
The furious row over the vital open source software project XFree86 has raised questions over what future direction the group should take. One of the project's founders, David Wexelblat (actually the fourth guy - see this good history), has suggested that the X model is anachronistic and needs a fundamental garbage-can shaped overhaul.
The row stems from accusations levelled at developer Keith Packard, which saw Packard expelled. That's less interesting than what happens to XFree86, but tempers are running high, so let's pause a moment.
Packard says that the project is under-resourced and that stems from a poor governance model. His expulsion follows accusations that he had been working against the interests of the project by touting a closed source spin-off.
"What Keith has done is among the most low-class, unprofessional and tactless things I have ever experienced in my professional career," wrote Wexelblat.
Linux users wait too long to see new 3D graphics hardware - which arrives at a dizzying rate these days - supported by the windowing system, according to Packard. He cites a year-long wait for a version that officially supports Radeon, for example.
The project has only 250 contributors, compared to over 800 for the fetchmail project. We're not sure how much to deduce from that, because quite often the most important work comes from only a small number of regular developers.
But don't blame the developers, blame the model, says Wexelblat.
"X is obsolescent," he wrote in a mailing list posting.
"I've been working in the Windows world for years now, and client-server display systems are utterly irrelevant to the majority of real-world computer users. X needs to be replaced by a direct-rendered model, on which a backwards-compatible X server can be reasonably trivially implemented".
X11 offers the flexibility of running your application over the network, but that power comes at the cost of speed and flexibility for most users, who don't need that capability.
"The idea of being able to remote individual windows isn't relevent to the vast majority of desktop users," explained Wexelblat. "So the paradigm really needs to be inverted - direct-rendered desktop, with remotability."
Key Linux kernel developer Alan Cox agreed that the project needed a wake-up call, but didn't think a splinter project by Packard could cause too much harm:
"X has to evolve, X has to do cool stuff, X has to let people break stuff, X has to delegate trust to driver maintainers far more," he wrote. "To me it doesn't matter if Keith and friends spin off an "Xperimental" or XFree itself changes, but that change is vital to the future of X11."
So when the dust has settled over the Packard issue, what will the future X look like? ®
Bootnote The historical link cited above explains why the "86" remains part of the project's name, when it has long since evolved past being x86-specific. It's partly a pun, but partly in answer to the question "why not XFree?". In the interview, Dawes answers: "Take a look at xfree.com, you might see one reason why we're reluctant." Obvious, when you think about it.