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July 9, 1990


By CBR Staff Writer

The dream of a standard graphical user interface for Unix has turned into a nightmare. In the battle for a user interface standard none of the combatants – after nearly two years of struggle – have been able to secure a victory or conclude peaceful negotiations – and once again, all the evidence points to the Open Software Foundation playing the role of the Evil Empire while AT&T and its acolytes in Unix International, while not prepared to abandon Open Look altogether, repeatedly put up proposals for compromise, only to be rebuffed by the Software Foundation.


This impression is strengthened by the fact that ever since it entered the computer industry, AT&T has behaved like a novice in the fields of public relations, self-promotion and getting its own way on anything. Standards bodies like X/Open and IEEE have floundered like unsuccessful United Nations negotiating teams, and are still flapping around in no-man’s-land for answers – and the fact that X/Open continues to sit on the fence strongly suggests that the issues are real ones and not simply chimeras of corporate pride: if OSF/Motif were the perfect solution rather than simply a good contender, X/Open would surely have put all its weight behind it. Meanwhile users and developers have been left to get on with the task of adopting – or deferring their choice of – an interface. The European Commission for one decided some time ago that it could wait no longer and plumped for OSF/Motif. The last few months has seen a jumble of applications programming interface proposals come and go – none have borne fruit – and now the target is on the move once again. Originally a solution to such dilemmas was thought to lie in the development of an application programming interface supporting both OSF/Motif and AT&T Open Look toolkits, a project technically feasible – as proved by AT&T’s now-abandoned N3 project, which was demonstrated to IEEE’s 1201 interface group – but politically impossible to implement. However the intervening time period has seen other interfaces put in a Unix appearance – Hewlett-Packard’s Visual User Environment and Apple’s Macintosh interface for instance – and the ground has shifted away from developing a solution specifically at the toolkit level towards a higher-level method that will embrace non-Intrinsics and non-X Window-based environments by concentrating on look and feel aspects. This is the premise that IEEE is currently working with. X/Open has bowed out of the debate for now, despite pressure from users at its recent Xtra conference in Luxembourg who put the issue at the top of a list of priorities they submitted for X/Open to address, and from members at its meeting in Tokyo last week. –

News reaches us that X/Open came under under intense pressure from members at its meeting in Tokyo last week to make a decision on which graphical user interface it will ad opt. While the com bined choir of Open Software Foundation delegates were singing the praises of Motif, their hymns seem to have fallen on deaf ears. X/Open decided to wait until October – holding off while all the graphical user in terface players are declaring themselves – when it expects to ad opt a virtual applicat ion programming inter face to support multi ple environments. William Fellows reports.

Unix International Inc says it has completed a document defining the requirements of a common look and feel programming interface supporting a range of interfaces, which will reside on top of Unix System V.4. A draft is currently going to Unix International members for approval, from where it will be forwarded to Unix System Laboratories Inc and is expected to cost around $2m to develop. A Unix International spokesman said that Open Software Foundation staff have been presentat recent IEEE 1201 group meetings in Utah and most recently in San Jose where the issues have been discussed, and believes they are in favour of defining a standard for an Applications Programming Interface that will serve multiple interface environments. The same spokesman laid the blame for lack of progr

ess at the feet of Software Foundation member companies that are known to believe that a common programming interface for Motif and Open Look is technically impractical and politically inappropriate. In view of the political impasse between the industry camps, the whole issue is in the melting pot at the moment, though Unix International, Unix System Labs, standards bodies and big Unix users are known to be casting hungry eyes over the commercial software market, looking for a technology that can meet some, if not all of the objectives.

Virtual Toolkit

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Indeed at last month’s Unix User Show in London, Unix International’s Peter Cunningham went so far as to say that negotiations are under way with an undisclosed company that has just such technology. Other sources say that in the US, NIST the National Institute of Standards – has already signed with a software house for applications programming inter interface technology that runs on Sun workstations which could in theory lead to the US government standardising on it. And in Europe, latest information suggests that the European Commission’s Informatics Directorate has been working internally on a piece of software to support both Motif and Open Look, which it may be preparing to copyright. There are several companies known to have technology which can provide applications programming interfaces for multiple standards. One is XVT – X-ray Vector Tango – Denver, Colorado, formerly known as API, whose XVT Xtensible Virtual Toolkit – is a C-based look and feel-independent applications programming interface, allowing developers to write an application once, and route it to the required interface at compile time. The thing currently supports X Window, Motif, MacOS, Microsoft Windows as well as some character-based interfaces, and the company is evaluating the possibility of extending XVT to Open Look. XVT says that a lot of people are working on similar things at the moment, although most of them are only internal projects.

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