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Q&A: The X Factor

February 4, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Long before Microsoft Corp. ever contemplated Terminal Services, the X Window System set the standard for thin-client computing. Originally developed at MIT as part of Project Athena, X remains the predominant thin-client standard for Linux and Unix applications. Computerworld asked Steve Swales, chairman of and a senior manager at Sun Microsystems Inc. about the strengths and limitations of the standard -- and how it will evolve.

Q: Why use X Window?
It's the only choice right now for Unix and Linux for desktop applications. X is the only window system that's designed to be networked on the inside. It provides [support for] accelerated graphics hardware on the desktop. You lose that with the other kinds of [thin-client] systems. Many corporations are using it internally to deploy [computer-aided design] applications to workstations.

Q: Why not X?
Some would say it's complex to deploy. Part of the reason X terminals didn't catch on was the complexity of administering them. But some companies have wrapped it up and made it easy to install on a PC.

Q: Why not X over the Internet?
A few years back, there were efforts to push X over the Internet. "Web-enabled X" was the code name for that. But it's almost unused. The implementation is difficult to set up, [and] there are some security issues. The technology lets you take anything on your X screen and shove it out through a Web page.

It's a little bit confusing. You have to have a Java [virtual machine] on the machine where the browser is and an X server on that local machine to have the X technology work. The browser is not actually acting as an X server; it's just connecting to the X server and allowing X applications to safely display within the browser. It's confusing, and it's one of the reasons that the technology hasn't become very popular.

Q: How about X for remote office connectivity?
It wasn't designed for particularly low-bandwidth networks. For an individual user running over a dial-up line, you need to have some kind of compression in place.

There is an extension in place to provide a low-bandwidth implementation called LBX [low-bandwidth X]. Hummingbird has implemented that. Companies like Boeing are deploying it.

Q: X Window was in many ways the original thin-client standard. Why hasn't it seen even broader adoption?
A lot of it had to do with the history of X Window. The stewards of X really dribbled away to almost nothing about five or six years ago. It wasn't really keeping pace with the technology.

Q: What's next for X?
There's quite a lot of work happening in the area of enhancing the rendering capability to handle higher-resolution displays and high-quality text rendering. We're working on exciting technology for carrying the audio visual technology along with the X connection.

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