Wandering Thoughts archives

2018-02-18

Memories of MGR

I recently got into a discussion of MGR on Twitter (via), which definitely brings back memories. MGR is an early Unix windowing system, originally dating from 1987 to 1989 (depending on whether you go from the Usenix presentation, when people got to hear about it, to the comp.sources.unix, when people could get their hands on it). If you know the dates for Unix windowing systems you know that this overlaps with X (both X10 and then X11), which is part of what makes MGR special and nostalgic and what gave it its peculiar appeal at the time.

MGR was small and straightforward at a time when that was not what other Unix window systems were (I'd say it was slipping away with X10 and X11, but let's be honest, Sunview was not small or straightforward either). Given that it was partially inspired by the Blit and had a certain amount of resemblance to it, MGR was also about as close as most people could come to the kind of graphical environment that the Bell Labs people were building in Research Unix.

(You could in theory get a DMD 5620, but in reality most people had far more access to Unix workstations that you could run MGR on that they did to a 5620.)

On a practical level, you could use MGR without having to set up a complicated environment with a lot of moving parts (or compile a big system). This generally made it easy to experiment with (on hardware it supported) and to keep it around as an alternative for people to try out or even use seriously. My impression is that this got a lot of people to at least dabble with MGR and use it for a while.

Part of MGR being small and straightforward was that it also felt like something that was by and for ordinary mortals, not the high peaks of X. It ran well on ordinary machines (even small machines) and it was small enough that you could understand how it worked and how to do things in it. It also had an appealingly simple model of how programs interacted with it; you basically treated it like a funny terminal, where you could draw graphics and do other things by sending escape sequences. As mentioned in this MGR information page, this made it network transparent by default.

MGR was not a perfect window system and in many ways it was a quite limited one. But it worked well in the 'all the world's a terminal' world of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when almost all of what you did even with X was run xterms, and it was often much faster and more minimal than the (fancier) alternatives (like X), especially on basic hardware.

Thinking of MGR brings back nostalgic memories of a simpler time in Unix's history, when things were smaller and more primitive but also bright and shiny and new and exciting in a way that's no longer the case (now they're routine and Unix is everywhere). My nostalgic side would love a version of MGR that ran in an X window, just so I could start it up again and play around with it, but at the same time I'd never use it seriously. Its day in the sun has passed. But it did have a day in the sun, once upon a time, and I remember those days fondly (even if I'm not doing well about explaining why).

(We shouldn't get too nostalgic about the old days. The hardware and software we have today is generally much better and more appealing.)

MGRMemories written at 02:00:03; Add Comment


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