First conference and exhibition on X Window System marks rapid progress for X The Xhibition ’89 conference and exhibition held last week in San Jose, California proves that the X11 protocols and the X Window System from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have made great strides over the last year – but it also showed […]
First conference and exhibition on X Window System marks rapid progress for X The Xhibition ’89 conference and exhibition held last week in San Jose, California proves that the X11 protocols and the X Window System from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have made great strides over the last year – but it also showed that much remains to be done. The small product exhibit floor, an appendage to the four day technical conference, revealed X11 as a fast emerging common denominator in the computer world. Everything short of an IBM MVS mainframe, from Unix workstations and X-terminals to Apple Macintosh and IBM personal computers were rigged up as X-servers (the workstation component, in X lingo, while the client is the host that runs the application). Even the forlorn Commodore Amiga now has X-server capabilities, colour included, thanks to GfxBase, a small Milpitas, California software house. Still, the show left one pondering some questions about X, the most obvious of which is where’s the software?. Tektronix Inc, the Beaverton, Oregon display station manufacturer put out a list of X-compatible software in conjunction with its own X-terminal launch. That list includes about 50 applications, such as Access Technology’s 20/20 spreadsheet, Ashton-Tate’s dBase 1V and the Informix and Oracle relational databases. Independents and hardware manufacturers think that’s an acceptable number, given that X11 specifications weren’t generally available until last January. More importantly, there was a sense that much is being held back while the world waits on the Open Software Foundation and the arrival of a finished OSF/Motif graphical user interface this fall that’s when the real push for X11 applications will begin. In the rush to be first, Frame Technology of Sunnyvale, California says it will have the first OSF/Motif compliant application in the shape of its Framemaker publishing package by September. In the meantime, X11-compliant Framemaker was running at 80% of the Xhibition booths.
Whither the Xterminals? Building upon an established market presence is always easier than creating a new market, witness the rocky road that both Stellar and Ardent are travelling in the graphics supercomputer market, while old-timer graphics workstation manufacturer Silicon Graphics steadily builds upon its existing base of systems and applications with ever more powerful workstations. X-terminal manufacturers may find the going similarly hard. With personal computers coming up from below and Unix workstations moving down from above, X-terminals will be caught in a price squeeze. Although prices range from just under $1,000 for an Acer Counterpoint terminal (the company was not at Xhibition ’89), that doesn’t include the real per-user cost – the host CPU across the network to which the X-terminal is attached doesn’t come free. But the Acer Counterpoint Model 100 isn’t expandable. A more typical X-terminal might be the NCD16 from Network Computing Devices Corp, which lists for $2,850 with 512Kb of RAM, barely enough considering that desktop managers like Visix’s Looking Glass and IXI’s X.desktop require at least half that. Add in communications overhead and room to run applications and it starts to look like at least 2Mb for most users. And at $600 per extra megabyte the cost comes to almost $4,000, not including the per-user cost of the host. As one workstation vendor put it: saying the purchase price of an X-terminal is only so much is like buying a car and not factoring in the cost of gasoline and maintenance. From below, companies like Graphics Software Systems and Locus Computing Corp are offering low-cost software packages to transform MSDOS micros into X workstations. That leaverages off the existing base of millions of PCs already installed, representing a hardware investment many firms won’t want to get rid of just yet. X may kick new life into those old PCs yet, at the same time offering much more flexibility in expansion, mass-market commodity prices for add-in and add-ons, and access to the existing base of all the much l
oved and much used MSDOS applications. X and Unix to revive the mainframe? From above, workstation vendors quote prices under $4,000 for a diskless workstation. However, X-terminal advocates point out that low prices will doom character-based terminals in the Unix market for multi-user business applications. There are some who have even gone so far as to say that X-terminals may revive the sagging fortunes if not reputations of mainframes – Unix-based, that is – since they bring graphics, mouse, and other workstations/PC like features to the mainframe world. OSF/Motif versus AT&T/Sun Open Look Forget Open Look, the world is moving to OSF/Motif. Yes, independents and hardware manufacturers quickly add diplomatically, we’ll whatever interface our customers ask for. We’ll even do Open Look, if somebody other than AT&T or Sun asks for it, since AT&T and Sun are the only takers, third parties are working on OSF/Motif implementations just as fast OSF programmers can shove it out the door. A couple of booths were showing Motif prototypes, but nothing real until September at the earliest. You may have thought that OSF/Motif’s victory would settle the Unix market’s long, long search for an industry standard, easy to use graphical interface. Not really. It’s just moved on to the next battleground, desktop managers. OSF/Motif specifies a look and feel but not what features it should include, and how the user interface should manage system resources and applications and access to them. Two rivals – the UK’s IXI Ltd of Cambridge, and Visix Software Inc of Arlington, Virginia, have emerged. Visix already has several OEM customers for its Looking Glass product and disclosed a $3.5m bundling OEM pact with Pyramid Technology. Visix is also targeting one or more of the big four Unix workstation makers – Sun, Hewlett, DEC and IBM. Looking Glass goest into beta test in July, with production ships set for September or October. IXI’s X.desktop scores string of coups IXI Ltd already has customers for X.desktop, including Olivetti, NCR, Uniplex and US software distributor Unipress Software. Moreover, IXI has landed the Santa Cruz Operation and will be bundled with the Open Desktop bundled software package, which must be considered as something of a coup, given that Santa Cruz ships more Unix systems than anybody else. Technically speaking, Visix’s Looking Glass appears to have more functionality, but it may suffer in terms of ease of use precisely because of that. The sales pitch also hits a good deal more at the needs and common reference points of a technical user. But it is also blindingly fast (at least as demonstrated on a RISC-based DECstation 3100 with fast disk drives), pretty to look at, amazingly deep in details. Philip Gill