Making Way For Wayland

With recent moves made by prominent players, Wayland seems closer than ever to being the ultimate path for Linux users—but, let’s be honest, X11 will never truly die.

By Ernie Smith

Earlier this year, someone made one of the best social media jokes I’ve ever seen.

The joke is essentially this—after Twitter changed its name to X, an anonymous user launched a Mastodon server called, which referred to itself as “The successor to” The account @[email protected] drew a bunch of attention from people who got the joke—which, because it was Mastodon, was a lot more people than would have gotten the joke on Twitter.

Naturally, it was a huge hit. Of course it was! It was a niche joke that nailed its niche.

For people who aren’t familiar with Linux-y stuff, Wayland is the long-in-the-works successor to the X Window system, which is nearly 40 years old, and the Xorg display server implementation, which turns 20 in April. Wayland itself just celebrated its 15th anniversary, and slowly but surely, this project has been taking steps to replace X11, which has stuck around largely as a result of inertia.

Simply put, people aren’t begging for a replacement! But a couple of recent moves seem to be hinting that the tide is slowly moving in favor of Wayland long-term:

  1. In the past few years, the fundamental distribution Debian (which I’m using for my Linux fix these days) has defaulted to Wayland. Fedora, another fundamental distribution, has supported Wayland by default for even longer.
  2. Raspberry Pi OS, derived from Debian, also now defaults to Wayland, which means that single-board computers as a whole are likely to move away from X11 themselves.
  3. The popular desktop environment GNOME seems ready to remove X11 support entirely, per a merge request spotted by Phoronix, a significant move that draws a line in the sand. “X11 has been receiving less and less testing,” the request stated. “We have been defaulting to the wayland session since 2016 and it's about time we drop the x11 session completely.”
  4. GNOME’s main competitor, KDE Plasma, isn’t quite to the point of removing X11 support entirely, but a prominent developer for KDE, Nate Graham, wrote that KDE is also planning on making Wayland the default when its big update comes out as soon as early next year. “The X11 session will still be there of course, and distros will be free to override this and continue defaulting to X11 if they feel like it suits them better,” he wrote on his blog. “But we want Wayland to be our official recommendation.”

There are some that have been waiting years to make this happen, particularly in the GNOME universe. The problem is, Wayland still faces some limitations that might keep it from being the one display system to rule them all.


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A big one is that Nvidia GPUs just don’t reach their full potential in Wayland at this time. Earlier this year, Phoronix compared the GPU performance of an AMD Radeon RX 7900 and an Nvidia Geforce RTX 3090 in both Xorg and Wayland, and found that while the high-end AMD GPU saw consistently good performance across platforms, the RTX 3090 saw 16 percent lower performance on Wayland. And when you’re paying more than $1,300 for a GPU, 16 percent is a lot!

Odds are, if the two most popular Linux desktop interfaces shift their support away from Xorg, Nvidia will have to up their driver game—but then again, it’s not like Nvidia didn’t have early warning that Wayland was coming!

Some other big issues come in the form of operating system support. Wayland is not officially supported on any platform outside of Linux, meaning that if you’re using a variant of BSD, for example, you’re not even a second-class citizen, and you’re only just now trying to start the conversation. Wayland’s Linux focus, unfortunately, highlights where the FOSS ecosystem is, for better and for worse.

On top of that, if you’re willing to look around, there are a handful of very strong criticisms of how Wayland works in some corners of the digital sphere.

For one, Simon Peter, the creator of AppImage and the hello variant of FreeBSD, has a lengthy post on his Github page deeply criticizing Wayland, because of how significantly it differs from Xorg. (Peter posted his rant years ago, and it’s still getting comments nearly daily.)

For another, the GNOME-centric approach to Wayland, in the view of some, rubs some folks the wrong way.

Then there are those who are strong advocates of the technology, notably Linux personality Brodie Robertson, who has posted numerous videos in support of a Wayland-forward world.

But I think the correct take on this issue comes from Chris Siebenmann, who wrote back in August on the inevitability that Wayland would take over for most, but not all. It may never be 100 percent: Not everyone uses GNOME or KDE, and not everyone uses Linux. But odds are, GNOME dropping Xorg entirely will be a very strong symbolic move towards making Wayland the default in most settings, just as the Raspberry Pi embracing Wayland is.

Whatever the technical merits of Wayland over Xorg, Siebenmann notes almost in passing that X has lost much of its developer momentum:

The other sense that Wayland's technical merits are mostly irrelevant is that everyone agrees that Wayland is the future of Unix graphics and development of the X server is dead. Unless and until people show up to revive X server development, Wayland is the only game in town, and when you have a monopoly, your technical merits don't really matter.

To put it all another way, GNOME has found that taking a natural scrolling approach to Wayland isn’t enough. If they’re going to move things forward once and for all, they need to drop it, like MacOS dropped 32-bit apps. People still liked those 32-bit apps, but cutting the cord was ultimately necessary to push MacOS forward (or so the thinking presumably went).

Something tells me you can bury a corpse, but you’ll never be able to stop a zombie, though.

Last Links For A Week And A Half

404 Media has designated me as a dongle historian.

The Curse, an upcoming Showtime series starring Nathan Fielder and Emma Stone, feels like an M. Night Shyamalan storyline, except developed for someone too cynical to watch an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Honestly, I can’t wait. It’s going to be amazing.

Chicago’s McCormick Place, a major convention center, found itself at the center of an immensely sad story involving the death of more than 1,000 migrating birds that ran into its window in a single day. There is likely a strong takeaway from all of this, which the Washington Post seems to have nailed down.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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