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With Release, X.Org Seals Fate of XFree86

The X.Org Foundation has announced its first official release of the X Window System, effectively trumping rival XFree86, from which it originally forked over a licensing issue.

Called X Window System Version 11 Release 6.7 (X11R6.7), a windowing system for computers with bitmap displays, the release is the first since X.Org became a Foundation in January of this year.

Linux distributors Red Hat, SuSe, and Debian have endorsed the X.Org Foundation's latest; foundation sponsors include IBM , SUN and HP .

The Free and Open Source Communities are legendary for their debates over licensing. And licensing was among the issues facing the XFree86 group that led an offshoot group to form the X.Org Foundation. Until their break, virtually every major Linux distribution, BSD variants and a number of UNIX systems used XFree86 as their X Window System implementation of choice.

Now, a group of small distributions remain committed to XFree86.

The X Window System, a public domain windowing system (graphical user interface) for *nix platforms, is essentially a standard library of routines that can be used to develop GUI applications and open source desktop environments such as KDE or GNOME.

XFree86's president, David Dawes, said the group changed to a new licensing scheme in January that was widely regarded by developers and the leading Linux distributions, Red Hat, SuSe, Mandrake, Debian and others as being incompatible with GPL.

But Martin Michlmayr, Debian Project Leader, told internetnews.com that over time, it became much clearer that Freedesktop.org, a free software project that works on interoperability and shared technology for desktop environments for the X Window System, was the way to go.

"XFree86 [members] were not willing to make important changes in their processes, and the license change was when most vendors decided that enough is enough," he said. "I'm glad to see vendors moving to freedesktop.org, both because it's a more active and open community, and because they believe in freedom."

But Dawes, in a recent post to the XFree86 mailing list, wrote: "I'm disappointed that many of the major distros have chosen to discriminate against XFree86 and its [license] when they have been shipping other software for years with similar or more onerous [licenses]."

Dawes said he still believes that XFree86 is viable, and that the only way to keep it alive is through the licensing change.

At least one former influential XFree86 developer disagrees with Dawes. "License change can only be done by consensus, and while legally David Dawes can do what he did, it was done over the objections of most members of the X development community," said Jim Gettys, co-founder of the X Window System.

"This could not be tolerated. The MIT/X copyright has been sufficient for over 15 years," said Gettys, an interim board member of X.Org and former XFree86 contributor.

Gettys explained to internetnews.com that, in his opinion, a number of other events and decisions were made without proper community consultation. "No one can work in that environment, and the way XFree86 is organized as a corporation, there was no way to appeal or influence its course, unless it, itself, decided to change," Gettys said. "XFree86 decided not to change, and that is ultimately its decision."

The former XFree86 contributor also told internetnews.com that he believes that the X.org foundation and its release is a triumph for Free and Open Source software. "It marks the transition to open community based governance of the X Window System and standards," he said.

Gettys said the newly formed X.Org Foundation is different than its immediate predecessor, the X.Org consortium. The consortium was an industry based organization, whereas the Foundation is an open membership organization that allows membership and a voice in governance to any that have contributed to development.

The new X.Org X Window System release is also more than just a replacement for the latest version of XFree86 (4.4), according to Gettys. "We updated a number of major components that were very stale in XFree864.4: e.g. fontconfig, Xft, freetype, and made the distribution much less likely to break systems that had more up to date packages," Gettys told internetnews.com. "Some critical bug fixes were also incorporated."

X.Org intends to keep on innovating the X Windows System and already has a number of interesting development in the pipeline, the HP researcher added. "The major innovation is going on in the 'modular' packages we are also working on, with Composite, Damage, XFixes, etc, but those are not yet ready for widespread deployment. We hope to start a pre-release sequence on the repackaged distribution with the new extensions sometime this summer."