X Window Interest Grows But Products Are Scarce

Ann Lowe
Computer System News

July 3, 1989

SAN JOSE, CALIF. - Commercial interest in the X Window System is gaining momentum, but products designed around the standard remain scarce.

Last week's Xhibition '89 conference here drew about 3000 attendees-up from about 1000 who gathered last year in a gymnasium at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While the show remains largely a technical forum, this year's event attracted more vendors and users interested in the commercial promise of X-based products.

"It's a lot more commercial than it was last year," said Anil Malhorta, sales and marketing director of IXI Ltd., Cambridge, Mass. "You see a lot more people from the marketing side." IXI makes an icon-based user interface that sits on top of Motif.

So far, though, not much has been brought to market. Attendees said they were surprised and disappointed at the lack of application software that has been written for X Window.

"Most of the applications that you find here are really tools to build applications," said Paul Wellens, technical product manager at Interactive Systems Corp., Santa Monica, Calif. He said this is particularly surprising, given the "amazing number of X programmers."

Attendees cited several reasons for the lack of X applications. One is that the X Window System-which hardware vendors started promoting as a standard two years ago-is still relatively new. Another problem is that the X standard encompasses a broad set of protocols, making X applications too large and complex to build quickly.

Another commonly cited reason was the apparent confusion in the market over which user interface to adopt. As the Open Software Foundation's Motif and AT&T's Open Look vie for position as the standard Unix window manager, many software developers are postponing development of X applications. One industry observer said developers are "afraid to commit" to an interface before a clear standard emerges.

But others maintained that there is little risk in building applications to support the X Window protocols while waiting to adopt a particular window manager such as Motif or Open Look. Interactive's Wellens said building or modifying applications to support X Window is the more difficult task, and adding the window manager is relatively easy.

Frame Technology Corp., San Jose, is one vendor that adopted X early. Frame currently has X versions of its FrameMaker publishing software on a number of Unix systems. The company now uses a proprietary user interface on top of X but announced at Xhibition that FrameMaker will support Motif by year's end.

"Clearly, all the Unix hardware vendors are committed to X Windows. There's no doubt about that," Frame president Steve Kirsch said. "We knew we needed to port to X, so we did it."

More significant than the shakeout between Open Look and Motif is that the tools to develop these interfaces are just now becoming available, Kirsch said. He said Motif now is "still very buggy," though he expects it to be stable by the end of the year.

Limited Availability

Up to now, Motif has been available only to OSF members. OSF is scheduled to ship a prerelease version of the window manager and tool kit to non-members July 21 and will ship release 1.0 a month later.

The source code for Open Look has been available since February and is due out in binary form this month.

Given the apparent interest in X and the increasing availability of development tools, Kirsch said it won't be long before more X applications appear.

"It looks like things are really starting to snowball here," he said. "Next year, the difference will be night and day."

At last week's show, Visix Software Inc., Arlington, Va., unveiled an icon-based user interface that it plans to offer on a broad range of Unix systems. Called Looking Glass, the product has a Motif-like window manager but adds an icon-based desktop manager for activating programs, managing files and directories, and accessing the Unix operating system.

Although Looking Glass has a "100 percent Motif look and feel" at the window manager level, it was built on a proprietary tool kit instead of the Motif tool kit. Visix chief executive Jau Wettlaufer said this approach reduces overhead and will let applications run at least 40 percent to 50 percent faster than under Motif.

Visix has back-burner plans for an Open Look-style version of Looking Glass, but so far the company has seen little demand for it, said vice president of marketing George Hoyem.

Looking Glass is scheduled for general release in the third quarter. Another product, called Looking Glass Advantage, is scheduled to ship in the fourth quarter. This product will add tools to let users customize the interface, edit icons and browse through "tree" images of the file system.

Looking Glass for workstations will cost $595. Pricing for Looking Glass Advantage has not been set.

Visix also announced OEM deals with Interactive Systems and Pyramid Technology Corp., Mountain View, Calif. Interactive has agreed to offer Looking Glass as part of its Architect development environment. Terms were not disclosed.

The five-year, $3.5 million agreement with Pyramid calls for Pyramid to offer Looking Glass and Looking Glass Advantage as standard features of its Unix-based systems. The pact also allows Pyramid to offer Visix's character-based Directory Shell interface to customers with ASCII terminals.

Frame too announced an OEM deal with Pyramid, letting Pyramid sell FrameMaker. Terms were not disclosed.

Additionally, Frame unveiled a porting kit for FrameMaker 1.3-X. Targeted at Unix OEMs, the kit includes tape, documentation and technical support from Frame. It is available now for $25,000, plus up-front royalties. Separately, Frame last week said it is phasing out its direct sales effort and replacing it with a mixed VAR, retail and OEM strategy (see story on Page 27).

Products Debut

Unify Corp., Sacramento, Calif., last week announced that its Accell fourth-generation language will support Motif by early next year. A Unify spokeswoman said the company's strategy is to offer Accell under a variety of window systems. The 4GL currently supports Microsoft Corp. Windows, as well as a proprietary window system. A version for Open Look will ship to beta sites in a couple of months, the spokeswoman said.

Network Computing Devices Inc., Mountain View, Calif., introduced a software package that will allow its NCD16 terminals to function as DECwindows terminals on Digital Equipment Corp. computers running VMS or Ultrix. The NCDnet package is available now as a $200 option for all new NCD16 terminals. The software is available for $150 as an upgrade for current users of NCD16 terminals.

Two X terminals debuted from Tektronix Inc., Wilsonville, Ore.

The XN11 is a color terminal with a 15-inch standard display, 1024 x 768 addressability and a palette of 4096 colors with 16 displayable colors. A 19-inch display with up to 16.7 million colors and 256 displayable colors is optional.

The color terminal is based on Intel Corp.'s i386SX processor and Texas Instruments Inc.'s 34010 graphics coprocessor. Memory is expandable to 8 Mbytes. Prices for the XN11 terminal will begin at $7495, and the terminal is scheduled to ship in November. Tektronix is offering an introductory price of $6995 for orders placed through November.

Tektronix's monochrome XN5 terminal is built by Network Computing Devices and is distributed under an OEM agreement. The terminal has a 16-inch, 1024 x 1024 display. It is based on a 12.5-MHz Motorola Inc. 68000 processor and a proprietary graphics chip. Memory ranges from 1 to 4.5 Mbytes. The $2795 monochrome terminal is scheduled to ship in August.

Users of the Tektronix 4211 can upgrade to the XN11 for $1000.


Copyright 1989 CMP Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.