David A. Wheeler's Blog

Fri, 23 Jul 2004

The Cautionary Tale of XFree86

Well, it’s been many months, and the sad tale of XFree86 is now clear to all. At one time, if you used a Unix-like machine with a graphical user interface, it was very likely that you were using the results of the XFree86 project. But not now. Much of the code of the XFree86 project will live on in the X.org project, but the XFree86 project itself has now been abandoned by nearly all.

This is an important tale that needs recording, and telling. Cautionary tales about hubris, and ignoring both the people you lead and your customers, can sometimes help others to avoid the same mistakes. Hopefully, by recording such tales, there will be fewer similar tales to tell in the future. And in many ways this is a story of hope and triumph; it shows how developers and customers joined and revolted together against an extremely unpopular decision, and eventually got their needs met instead. In fact, customers ended up with a very simple transition path, one which is hard to imagine for a proprietary product. Rarely are “votes of no confidence” in the OSS/FS world so obvious and so powerful.

I’ve now documented XFree86’s demise in more detail as a new appendix on XFree86. The appendix is part of my essay about GPL compatibility. In short, the XFree86 leader decided that GPL compatibility was unimportant to customers and developers, ignoring all those who tried to explain otherwise. Customers and developers got fed up, established a competing fork, and switched en mass. In the end, the customers and developers got GPL compatibility, just as they demanded.

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