Fosdem O'Reilly
2004 Edition Free and Open Source Software Developer's European Meeting


2004-01-06 - Keith Packard

An interview conducted by Alain Buret
FOSDEM - First and traditional question : Please present yourself ...

Keith Packard - I'm Keith Packard, one of the original staff members of the MIT X Consortium and author of many X related standards and much of the X server source code. I work for Hewlett-Packard (no relation) as a research staff member at the HP Cambridge Research Labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I live in Portland, Oregon with my wife, two children, two dogs and one cat (going on two). Yes, it's a long commute.

FOSDEM - How and when did you start working in the X world ?

Keith Packard - I was working at Tektronix building an integrated development environment for C which was eventually targeted at the original Digital VAXStations back in 1987. While my initial task was to construct an incremental C compiler, I ended doing a lot of the UI, including building a widget set for X10R4. When X11R1a came out in late 1987, I got it running on some new Tektronix workstations along with various GNU tools (my first GNU copyright assignment was for GDB support for the National Semiconductor 16032 processor).

In 1988, I was hired to work with the X architect, Robert Scheifler, at the MIT Laboratory for Compute Science where I spent four years developing the X11 server, several X standards, the X11 test suite and other projects.

FOSDEM - What have been the major changes in the last version of X, and is there any fundamental change that will appear in the next major release ?

Keith Packard - That's actually a difficult question to answer as there is no canonical version of X. I'm currently working with which has development versions for an X server and the major X libraries available in CVS, but hasn't made any kind of release.

The most widely used distribution, XFree86, appears ready to release XFree86 4.4. That release appears to have several video driver updates along with IPv6 support provided by Sun Microsystems on behalf of itself hasn't made a release in several years; X11R6.6 was released way back in April, 2001. Most of the changes from that release have been incorporated into XFree86 and other X releases from various Unix vendors.

Each Unix vendor maintains their own X code based loosely on the distribution; cross compatibility among all of these distributions remains quite good, largely because few major changes have been made in any of the code bases in many years.

At, we're working on a wide ranging project to re-architect graphics for open source computing. We've built a prototype X server that demonstrates OS-X style window-level compositing, but I'm not sure when or how that work will make it onto the typical Linux desktop.

FOSDEM - There are other projects for graphical interfaces that will be present at FOSDEM; is there any interactions with these projects ?

Keith Packard - While I've followed both DirectFB and Fresco for many years, there hasn't been a lot of interaction. I'd like to fix that as both of those projects have some interesting technologies. One of the ideas we're kicking around at freedesktop is to migrate the X server to an OpenGL-based backend, if DirectFB or Fresco could share the same driver, then we could actually run them in parallel with X.

FOSDEM - Do you think that the X consortium should change its organization mode, be more open ?

Keith Packard - There is no 'X Consortium' at this point; that organization folded in 1996 and transferred the X trademarks and copyrights to the X source code to The Open Group. The Open Group eventually created a dependent organization,, to manage the X Window System. has only a few members at this point, largely Unix workstation and PC X server vendors. The lack of significant involvement by the Linux community in this organization has reduced it's import. So, if wants to become more relevant and helpful in furthering the X window system, it must change it's organizational structure from a consortium of corporations to a community of developers. I believe the leadership understands these issues quite well, so I'm hopeful that we'll see substantive changes in the coming years.

FOSDEM - Introduce in few words what you're going to talk about during your presentation ...

Keith Packard - I'd like to present a technical overview of the architecture of the new extension architecture I recently designed to permit window-level compositing as well as some sense of my future design goals for the Linux desktop environment.

FOSDEM - What are you expecting from your talk at FOSDEM and from the interactions with other developers present at the event ?

Keith Packard - I'm hoping to get people interested in changes that are occurring on the desktop that will dramatically enhance our ability to deploy the kinds of applications only seen today in canned demos (like Croquet and Looking Glass). I'd love to get other developers interested in building a shared environment that can support many different modes of interaction at the same time so we can start to explore new user interface technologies while remaining able to run existing applications.


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