Xplain

Explaining X11 for the rest of us

Recap

Last time, we got familiar with windows, the core building block of the X Window System, and learned about server-side pixmaps, which is how images can efficiently be stored and displayed on the user's screen.

We also learned about the expose model of drawing, where windows are ethereal: the fact that they look like real, tangible boxes one moving over the other is just an illusion. Another way to put it is that windows are "lossy" ways of drawing, whereas pixmaps are "lossless". This isn't to say that they get JPEG artifacts, just that the X server will literally lose the pixel contents of certain parts of a window, and will ask the window for them again occasionally.

Finally, we topped it off by showing shaped windows, along with a new data structure, a region, which is an alternate representation for a black-and-white bitmap that's more efficient in common use cases.

Today, we're going to learn about the basics about how input is delivered, and how that mixes with the core data structure in the X server, the window tree. We'll start to learn the basics of window managers and window decorations, and how they exploit this data structure.

Another tool in the toolbox

As I introduced last article, there's multiple ways to get your window to have some contents. You can use background-pixmap like the kitten circle did in the last demo, or you can select for Expose events and repaint with XCopyArea, XFillPoly or a number of other core drawing calls.

Both of these are completely valid approaches to the same problem, and they are both used in different circumstances. Using background-pixmap will take up server memory, but means that there's less network traffic and flicker for your window. Instead, if your scene is more like a standard GUI: just some lines here, some text there, you'd be better drawing on-demand. You don't want to re-render and transfer the entire contents of your window to the server every time the user types a letter in your textbox widget, now do you?

For a more concrete example, most GTK+ applications draw by listening to the Expose event, but if you drag a file from the file picker or file manager, then you're dragging around a small window with the background-pixmap property set. I'd imagine this is because the tiny preview item you're dragging around is mostly static. It's not going to resize, and its contents aren't going to change once, so it makes sense to draw it once and then set background-pixmap on the window.

So, a lot of the design of X11 is giving clients and apps a large set of tools to design and implement their app, without any real opinionated design about how an app should be made. An X client can use this tool or that tool to battle this tradeoff or that tradeoffs, and neither is fundamentally a wrong choice.

With this in mind, we're going to look at windows in more depth today. My goal for today is to convince you that X11 windows are simply another tool you can use to construct a rich UI: they're simply rectangles that own pixels on the X server's front buffer. (OK, shaped regions. Let me pretend they're rectangles again, so I don't have to type this parenthetical every time...)

But first, an aside about input

Before we fully get into the depths of the window tree, I want to talk very briefly about how input is done under X11. It's nothing surprising. There is, of course, a large amount of depth and other features in the input model, but for now, let's just go over the basics.

Put your cursor over the gray box above. The window shows where your mouse cursor is with a cross-hair. As explained in the last article, clients can use the XSelectInput Xlib call to listen to specific events on windows. We mentioned one event last time, Expose, which was used to let the window know it has to draw a specific region, but X11 defines a large number of other events, including input events. The above demo uses Motion events to know when the mouse pointer was moved over the window, and then redraws a new set of cross-hairs.

Additionally, when the window gets a Enter event, that means that the cursor entered the window, and when the window gets a Leave event, that means the cursor left the window. I track these events as well, and change the background color and show or hide the background when that happens.

The window tree

The above demo shows another little cross-hairs app inside the first one. If you look in the inspector, you can see that the small inner window is a child of the first one.

After creating a new window, clients can reparent one window to another using the ReparentWindow request. By default, all windows are parented to the root window.

I intentionally modelled the inspector after the Chrome or Firefox dev tools panes for a reason, and hopefully it's becoming more apparent now. For those of you who've done a bit of web development, X11 windows should start to seem familiar: they're a lot more like DOM nodes than the normal windows that you think of. They're, again, a series of low-level building blocks that you can use to construct a rich application. You can give set attributes like their background pixmap or background color, as we discussed last time. You can shape them in interesting ways. You can add arbitrary data to them. You can add event handlers to them.

What makes DOM nodes different, however, and what I feel makes windows not as useful is that they're too low-level of a building block. DOM nodes have layout and flow baked into them, complex and flexible styling rules, accessibility support, built-in intrinsics like roles and behaviors: you can simply ask the browser for a <button>, attach an onclick handler, and be done with it.

In contrast, X11 windows are a place to paint pixels, and get raw input events. There's no way to mark an X11 window as a menu or a button. It doesn't give you out-of-the-box accessibility. It doesn't allow you to construct a bunch of X11 windows as if they were widgets and get a nice, reflowing form field. As such, there's really no benefit to using nested windows, one per widget, as if they were DOM nodes. In fact, what you get is a slow, flickering experience. The client has to recalculate the new rectangle for every DOM node in its own code, and then make a network request over to the X server for every single widget.

Unfortunately, some UI toolkits have been built on these mistakes. The Xt toolkit-kit used by the Athena widget set and Motif desktop environment used a server-side window per widget. Other toolkits derived from or inspired by Xt, including old versions of Qt and GTK+, followed suit. GTK+, even today, still has its design inspired by this legacy behavior. In order to make a reactive widget, you need to create a GdkWindow — which corresponds to a X11 window. Most interactive widgets do this automatically for you, but if you're using a non-interactive widget like a GtkBox, it won't have a respective window, and thus can't receive events properly. This is what the seemingly magic GtkEventBox container does: it's a simple thing that wraps its children and creates an X11 window for it, allowing you to receive events.

The inherent lag, by the way, is not a theoretical concern. In 2008 GTK+ landed a long-time-wanted feature, "client-side windows", to remove inherent flicker in the classic server-side approach. The feature works by emulating server-side windows inside GTK+: interpreting all of the attributes like background color, doing proper clipping and painting, and finding the proper window for all events we dispatch. It was a tremendous undertaking, and it means that a large part of the toolkit has to emulate or copy an X server in places to match its semantics in order to not break ABI.

Coming up...

So, the window tree seems to complicate the design of the system, and doesn't seem to provide any major advantages... does it have any? There is actually one big advantage: allow multiple, independent processes to compose a single application from multiple windows.

We'll look at this in more detail in "Expert Window Techniques"!