It's 2005. X11 Still Sucks

Copy and paste in X? That’s easy! Just highlight the text you want to copy, and choose “copy” from the menu, then paste it into whatever application you want to paste it into, assuming that application supports clipboard copy and paste. If it doesn’t, then just highlight the text you want to copy, and then click the middle mouse button, thus copying the primary selection. It’s also an important part of the X Window Experience to make sure that you always forget which buffer it is that you’re trying to paste, and so accidentally paste the “wrong” one, thus making any copy and paste operation take twice as long. Like salmonella in chicken dishes, this adds exotic glamour to your boring workday.

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It’s not just that X11 is terrible – everyone knows that. It’s that the rest of the world has gotten so much better, and X…well, X has gotten better too, but not better enough.

I get this epiphany all the time. Last night, I was working on something late at night on my Powerbook, and it suddenly hits me, like a bolt from the blue: I’m using Unix. With a fabulous GUI. That looks and functions great instead of like crap, and then I sit down at a Linux desktop the next day and it’s like being forced to eat rancid cabbage after a night dining at Hiro Sushi. It’s awful. Complain about Windows XP all you like, but the core mechanics of using the GUI are about 640 times better than X11 (and somewhere out there, someone is having the same epiphany I am, only they’re saying: “I’m using VMS. With a fabulous GUI”.)

Gnome and KDE have come a long way from the primitive world of twm. And I don’t want to just randomly tear down the work that went into them. But at some point, it feels like the right thing to do to point out when someone has decided that they should build their house on a foundation made entirely of loose sand. I’m configuring gnome the other day, and within 5 minutes something goes subtly wrong, and I have to start reading man pages on my .xinitrc file, and looking at the startx script. I mean, Christ on a crutch, it’s 2005 and you’re going to force me to exit and restart the windowing system completely to see if I can support a new resolution? Maybe I should go back to lovingly assembling opcodes by hand while I’m at it.

X11’s continuing use as the open-source window system of choice is just another example of “worse is better” in action. X was a research project. It was never supposed to be a product that was meant to bring any benefit to an actual user. The whole idea of “let’s build a windowing system that is all mechanism, and no policy” is utterly and didactically braindead from the word “go.” It’s like building a “car” where the driver must provide their own suspension and transmission. It’s like building an alarm clock that requires the user to wire up buttons to set the time.

If you want to build something as usable as Windows or Mac OS, there’s only one way to do it: tear down the house built on the loose sand foundation, and start designing a product, from the ground up, that is meant to be used and not just played with. Yes, that’ll be a lot of effort. Tons of effort. Building software is hard. Building usable software is harder.

But using software that was poorly designed and implemented, like X11, is the hardest of all.