Originally published in the March 1995 issue of Advanced Systems.


The X evolution

The X Window System is a billion-dollar industry. Now it must grow beyond its Unix roots.

By Stephen Auditore

Since the introduction of the X Window System in the mid-1980s, it has been on a long metamorphosis. Born as a niche display technology, the darling of Unix cognoscente, the X Window System was discovered by the mainstream Unix community, and fueled the half-billion-dollar venture capital-based X terminal business -- a business based on the simple proposition of cheaper workstation-like seats. But workstation price erosion and the popularity of Microsoft Windows on the Intel platform bulldozed X into alignment with the Unix vendors, turning it into a platform-specific technology, at odds with the idea of client/server computing based on personal computers.

X in 1994
During 1994, X, the would-be foundation of a platform-independent networked computing industry, became a pawn in the Unix versus Microsoft war. Despite the Ptolemaic posturings of the Unix industry, however, X rode an overall improved business climate in North America to a record year. For 1994, the X market topped $1.38 billion. Leading the X market was the X terminal sector, at $647.5 million (285,000 units), or 47 percent of the market. However, the year's big surprise was that X terminals, after a brief period of sharp growth, flattened abruptly in 1994. The cause: a combination of competitive pressures, mostly from PCs -- and strong growth in the software-based X market, specifically in the PC X server software segment.

PC X servers grew a strong 45 percent in 1994, benefitting from a shift to more powerful PCs and the need of customers to retain client/server flexibility. Accounting for approximately $76 million in sales, PC X servers now make up 6 percent of the X market. Interface development technology contributed $187.7 million, or 14 percent. Services exploded to 17 percent of the market, showing the strong demand for X and Unix-oriented training and development services.

Meanwhile, the X terminal market shows signs of metamorphosing, with Digital's X-oriented Multia desktop and Tektronix's direct assault on the Windows-under-Unix market, WinDD, defining new ways to merge X and Microsoft Windows.

Regardless of the apparent dominance of the X terminal portion, the significance of the growth of the PC X server business reminds us that the X market is defined and driven by software. The technology is software and is supported by virtually any hardware configurations. But to the detriment of X, strategic posturings within the Unix community have forced X away from the most cost-effective environment -- Intel processing platforms. A sophisticated, powerful, and feature-rich client/server graphical protocol has thus effectively been precluded from leveraging the cheapest, most ubiquitous desktops.

X has matured into a billion-dollar industry, yet it has also been a prisoner of its history. For the future, X needs to evolve radically. The enterprise desktop requires maximum application availability and flexibility -- X can and should be a vehicle for delivering those applications and maximizing information access, a vehicle superior to some of the lesser choices that limit access and use. To achieve this, X must shed its Unix centricity to metamorphosize once again in a changing market.

About the author
Stephen Auditore is president of The X Business Group in Fremont, CA. This article is based on the January edition of the company's newsletter, which covers graphical environment technologies, including the X Windows System market. He can be reached at steve.auditore@advanced.com, or by calling 510-226-1075.

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Last updated: 1 March 1995.