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March 9, 1988


By CBR Staff Writer

The nice thing about agreeing on an industry standard is that it clears the way for everybody to argue about what to do next, writes Mike Faden. The Uniforum exhibition in Dallas last month was stuffed with implementations of that most eminent of unanimous industry standards, the X Window System, which is backed even by IBM and DEC. Some demonstrations purported to be X.11, most were based on X.10, but nearly all were either limited to canned demos or were severely constrained in other ways. One reason is that vendors haven’t yet had time to implement applications that actually do anything sensible with X, but another is that it is questionable as to exactly what can be done with any degree of confidence until other key technologies are in place. One problem is the lack of agreed standard high-level toolkits to simplify applications development – over at the Usenix technical conference Sun Microsystems’ David Rosenthal gave a nice description of the horrors of implementing the hello world program under X using only the low-level Xlib functions, and finished with a program covering several pages of code. The related problem is of course the user interface look-and-feel debate, where Microsoft managed to hit the headlines by making some sort of offer of Presentation Manager to the X/Open Group, Apple may do something to try to proliferate the Mac interface assuming it gets round to implementing it fully on its own Unix systems – and Sun, which has already eased NeWS into future Unix releases, is said to be close to trying to sell the world on its latest ideas, when it decides it has something to sell. Even IBM DEC, with the DEC Windows programme, and Hewlett-Packard with NewWave, have already set out their product directions – but no one is immune from the future effects of Presentation Manager on the market. Even IBM sees the area as important enough to pitch in and cloud the issue, it seems: The Instruction Set Ltd technical director Andy Rutter comments that IBM is finally offering the Carnegie-Mellon developed Andrew distributed window system. X and NeWS, Sun’s offering that will be integrated with it, do not in themselves define the user interface, thus allowing flexibility in the user interface to be presented – itself part of the attraction particularly in traditional Unix scientific and engineering markets. But a standard graphics Unix user interface is promised eventually – and as Sun’s Michelle Arden said, while adopting IBM and Microsoft’s Presentation Manager or the Mac interface opens the possibility of capturing non-Unix applications, the idea is not to get sued in the process! The big question said Rutter is how to integrate MS-DOS, OS/2 and Unix. And the big problem with vanilla Presentation Manager is that it’s not a networked system: it’s a kernel implementation designed for stand-alone systems. One common suggestion is to use Presentation Manager on top of X; a problem is then going to be maintaining binary compatibility with standard Presentation Manager applications. It’s not even as though Presentation Manager is a neat, small set of interfaces that could be swiftly reimplemented: Ken Pomper, group product marketing manager with the Santa Cruz Operation Inc, said that although it’s conceptually possible to implement Presentation Manager on X/NeWS – the product Santa Cruz has signed up for – there’s not only the integration problem but the fact that Presentation Manager has a lot more library calls. One factor in deciding what eventually sways the market, he points out, is likely to be how the proponents of the various solutions make their technology available, whether by licensing or providing specifications. And, as he says, that’s an area that Sun has traditionally been good at.

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