[TUHS] Early GUI on Linux

Dan Cross crossd at gmail.com
Sun Feb 26 08:49:36 AEST 2023

On Sat, Feb 25, 2023 at 4:31 PM Paul Ruizendaal <pnr at planet.nl> wrote:
> I think discussion of early Linux is in scope for this list, after all that is 30 years ago. Warren, if that is a mis-assumption please slap my wrist.
> Following on from the recent discussion of early workstations and windowing systems, I’m wondering about early windowing on Linux. I only discovered Linux in the later nineties (Red Hat 4.x I think), and by that time Linux already seemed to have settled on Xfree86. At that time svgalib was still around but already abandoned.
> By 1993 even student class PC hardware already outperformed the workstations of the early/mid eighties, memory was much more abundant and pixels were no longer bits but bytes (making drawing easier). Also, early Linux was (I think) more local machine oriented, not LAN oriented. Maybe a different system than X would have made sense.
> In short, I could imagine a frame buffer device and a compositor for top-level windows (a trail that had been pioneered by Oriel half a decade before), a declarative widget set inspired by the contemporary early browsers and the earlier NeWS, etc. Yet nothing like that happened as far as I know. I vaguely recall an OS from the late 90’s that mixed Linux with a partly in-kernel GUI called “Berlin” or something like that, but I cannot find any trace of that today, so maybe I misremember.
> So here are a few things that I am interested in and folks on this list might remember:
> - were there any window systems popular on early Linux other than X?

Not really. The context at the time was that a lot of folks (well, me)
wanted a workstation-like experience, but on a machine we could
individually afford. That basically meant bringing over most of the
staples one was used to on a (Sun|DEC|HP|SGI) machine, which almost
universally implied X as a prerequisite. Folks wanted to be able to
use their customized shell startup files and so on, but also their
window manager configurations and the like.

That said, it was my impression that it took a year or two for X on
Linux to really get going, and further that it was really flakey for a
while afterwards; you had to have just the right combination of video
adapter, monitor, mouse, etc. Before that, I'm sure people played
around with mgr and stuff like that, but I don't think anyone really
_wanted_ anything substantially different.

> - was there any discussion of alternatives to X?

Not really. Again, the context is very important here: when Linux
started to become a thing, a lot of people who started working with it
already had experience with "real" computers, but those machines were
not cheap. It was rare, but some people could afford workstation-class
hardware at home; most could not. If you weren't independently
wealthy, you made do with a PC or something. But the idea that you
could replicate your work or research computing environment home was
tremendously exciting. Again, more often than not, that meant X.

> - was there any discussion of what kernel support for graphics was appropriate?

I have a vague memory that most people wanted to keep this out of the
kernel to the extent possible. X did most of the heavy lifting in
userspace, writing to a memory-mapped framebuffer; if you could do the
minimum to set that up and mmap it into the X server process, you were
good to go. But I may be wrong on this.

        - Dan C.

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