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From the Desktop: Derailing the Alphabet

The History of Motif

  • December 12, 2000
  • By Brian Proffitt

For those of us using the English alphabet, we may remember a time early in our careers where the phrase "elemenohpee" was an actual letter of the alphabet, all by itself. (In German, this would have been "elemenohpay.") Why else would we rattle this phrase off so quickly in the middle of the Alphabet Song?

After some time, as we grew older, it dawned on most of us that this was actually five letters jammed in the middle of the song so it could fit the same melody of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Apparently songwriting was not a big moneymaker back when this song was thought up.

Now that I have come to this section of my little alphabetical tour of window managers, I find that we can run through the next three window managers on my list in fairly quick succession, because as you will soon see, they are tied together by history.

M Stands for MWM and Making Up Your Own License

Motif is quite a collection of code. For those of you who need a ramp-up, Motif is a X Window interface. It came to exist because commercial vendors (like IBM and H-P) wanted a uniform interface based on X. (The creators of X did not envision X as being its own interface: the mantra at the X Consortium was that X be a set of tools so that others could create their own graphical interfaces. Which they are doing to this day--witness GNOME and KDE, which are both X-based.)

Basically, Motif is based on the X Window libraries, but Motif adds its own toolkit ("widgets"), a style guide, and a window manager, mwm. All three combine to create a look and feel, and Motif ended up being the basis for the Common Desktop Environment.

From the beginning Motif was a commercial endeavor, eventually controlled by the Open (really Closed) Group. On May 15 of this year, the Open Group did something new: it released the source code for Motif, now called OpenMotif, under the Open Group Public License. Basically, this license allowed those using Open Source operating systems--i.e., Linux and BSD--to use Motif. As the FAQ page says:

"The Open Group Public License for Motif grants rights only to use the software on or with operating systems that are themselves Open Source programs. In restricting the applicability of the license to Open Source platforms this does not meet term 8 of the Open Software Definition."

The question remains, is this a bad thing?

From a user's standpoint, I'd say probably not. Users simply don't care about the vagaries of software licensing. They want to know how much it costs and if it will do the job they want. The mwm window manager ran very well on the version of OpenMotif that came with my SuSE 7.0, and as window managers go, it was clean and efficient.

From a developer's standpoint, I might have to lean towards this response: do we really need another form of public license? Granted, I think we all might like to see the demise of proprietary software, or at least a diminishing, but I don't think that building a collection of fragmented, incompatible licenses to compete with the copyrights is the best way to go.

Are we seriously suggesting that developers have to sit there and wonder if their application, their pride and joy, is going to get locked out of a certain platform because of licensing incompatibilities? I've watched developers try to get arcane 16-bit VAX systems to try to talk to Oracle 8 databases. They certainly don't need the hassle of added legalities to enter the mix. It's confusing and rather silly.

But there is some good news for those who believe in the sanctity of free software: for years the Hungry Programmers have been developing their own GPL'd version of OpenMotif called LessTif, which will provide interested developers and users alike with a truly free version of the Motif software.

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