Follow Slashdot blog updates by subscribing to our blog RSS feed


Forgot your password?
X Graphics

X Window System Turns 30 Years Old 204

An anonymous reader writes "One of the oldest pieces of the Linux desktop stack still widely in use today is the X Window System that today is commonly referred to as X11 or in recent years the X.Org Server. The X Window System predates the Linux kernel, the Free Software Foundation, GCC, and other key pieces of the Linux infrastructure — or most software widely-used in general. Today marks 30 years since the announcement of X at MIT when it was introduced to Project Athena." X wasn't new when I first saw it, on Sun workstations the summer before I started college. When did you first encounter it?
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

X Window System Turns 30 Years Old

Comments Filter:
  • DECwindows ;) (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TheGratefulNet ( 143330 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @09:31AM (#47271255)

    that's where I first saw X. at DEC we had DECwindows on ultrix (bsd like unix) and vax/vmx.

    motif was the toolkit we developed guis in. and we used UIL to describe the UI, which was data that was read in and could change the look/feel of the widgets or their layout without rebuilding from source.

    instead of node:1 for a display it was node::1 for the display (double colon meant decnet instead of that newfangled thing called IP)

    • Likewise: VAX/VMS over DECnet. I still remember vividly the sudden paradigm shift I experienced at the time: one day I was used to "green screen" alphanumeric terminals, the next I suddenly understood the immense power and flexibility of a large bitmapped colour monitor. Previously I had thought that such workstations were only for graphic designers, people using CAD/CAM packages, or poncey pretentious managers who just wanted to have the latest hardware. After the first couple of hours on a training course

      • Re:DECwindows ;) (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Archtech ( 159117 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @09:48AM (#47271427)

        We spent an inordinate amount of time and effort explaining (often to people with considerable software experience) why "client" and "server" were the wrong way round.

        • I remember when Sun made the switch from SunTools to X-Windows. 1987'ish I thought they were nuts using a (slow) client-server architecture when we were fighting for graphics performance. As usual, it turned out to be another smart technical decision by Sun.

        • Re:DECwindows ;) (Score:5, Informative)

          by gman003 ( 1693318 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @11:22AM (#47272613)

          The best way to explain it, that I've found, is this:

          A server lets clients access a shared resource. On a file server, it's storage. On a web server, it's documents. On a compute server, it's processing. On an X server, the shared resource is the display, and clients are given access to it.

          • by jbolden ( 176878 )

            That is a good brief one liner to explain it. A single display (server) has multiple clients connecting to it using its display. That being said, the problem is that:
            client = what human works on
            server = what systems's team maintains

            seems to be the more common definition. The objection is really about the definition of "server" as your definition makes clear.

            • But those connections to the X Windows server may come from many different machines. At one job we had dedicated X terminals rather than local workstations, so every window was coming from a remote computer.

              The client/server made much more sense in the past because not as many people had preconceived notions about client==desk and server==machineroom.

        • by TWX ( 665546 )
          While it is technically correct that the X-terminal is the display server in that client applications connect to it, it's so counter-intuitive from a user perspective that the entire terminology should have been replaced. "Application Host" or "apphost" for the box running the program, and something like "Display Host" or "User Host" for the thin device doing the displaying.

          It is very, very hard to find good information on the Internet because of the terminology used. Newbies and those that don't under
    • Mine would be as a first-year EE student, NC State U. 1987. OSF wouldn't ship Motif for another year and half, so it was Athena Widgets and TWM all the way.

      God, I miss the screaming. :-)

      • by TWX ( 665546 )
        I first saw X at the same time that I first saw the Web. A social club that I'm in met at a university conference room, and one of the college students that helped get that room took us over to the Honors College to play with the fledgling Web, so it would have been about 1993. Saw Linux, X11, and NSCA Mosaic for the first time, was probably fall of 1993. God the web and the Internet in general felt fast that day, using a university's carrier-grade connection and full 10BaseT ethernet instead of relying
        • Not sure when I first saw it. I had used Sun Windows before it converted to X. So the first time I saw it I wasn't so impressed because it was slower then Sun Windows had been.

          One snag was that for the Suns we had without floating point hardware, any curve on a window such as the corners would take a long time to draw. It was quite noticeable and annoying until there was a new version/patch that fixed it. And X11 was much nicer overall when it came out.

          Later Sun had their NeWS system which I thought was

    • At NCSU, over the summer of 1989, the CSC department replaced a crapload of 68000-based four-terminal boxes running the UCSD p-system with DEC workstations running Ultrix and X11R4 with massive (for the time) 21 inch monochrome monitors and three button meeces. The basement of Leazar hall was filled with these things, and they showed up in other labs and other departments as well. Your home dir was NFS mounted so you could log in to anyone of them. There had previously been various other unix boxen for m

    • I had a shell account on a Vax earlier, but if it had X I did not have access to a Graphic Workstation to access it and never knew. The first time I saw X was in my C instructors office, she had the graphics workstation, I am thinking it was an SGI actually but I am not sure. The server was definitely HP/UX, the department had a number of them in a kind of cluster, you got a login on a particular machine but if it was busy it would just authenticate you and pass you to another.

      I still didnt have a graphical
    • Late 1989, on a VAXstation II/GPX running VMS 5.0. Not exactly a desktop workstation, it was a desk-side box as big as a 2-drawer file cabinet. That newfangled DECWindows came out and killed off the old VMS GUI "VWS". Right about that same time the VAXstation 3100 came out, a true desktop VAX workstation...

      The early versions ran a "desktop" called "XUI", which was replaced with Motif in 1991.

      Another commenter wrote that the performance has not improved that much since the early 90s. My current desktop

    • that's where I first saw X. at DEC we had DECwindows on ultrix (bsd like unix) and vax/vmx.

      motif was the toolkit we developed guis in. and we used UIL to describe the UI, which was data that was read in and could change the look/feel of the widgets or their layout without rebuilding from source.

      instead of node:1 for a display it was node::1 for the display (double colon meant decnet instead of that newfangled thing called IP)

      In 1992, when I entered the University, I managed to see a variety of Unix workstations in different labs. Our Computer Science labs were exclusively Sun workstations - at the time, SunOS, not even Solaris. We had some DECstations (the ones based on MIPS 3k, not Alpha) in our VLSI lab, running DECwindows on Ultrix. In our Parallel Computing lab, we had some RS/6000 workstations running AIX and Motif (remember that?) There was one term when we had a Real Time computing class, which involved running HP/R

    • Can anyone explain why NeWS was ultimately replaced by X on SunOS? I never understood that one.
  • by bumba2014 ( 3564161 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @09:32AM (#47271273)
    30 years is long enough.... time for the ritual of "Carrousel"...
    • time to die... (Score:5, Informative)

      by Danzigism ( 881294 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @09:53AM (#47271485)
      They are replacing X11 with Wayland. There's definitely much of X11 that is obsolete from a developer's standpoint. Pretty cool actually. []
      • ... Wayland is in no way a 'replacement' for X any more than SDL is.

    • by Creepy ( 93888 )

      Except Carousel is at 21 years of age :)

      I know, you are referring to the film, though - they extended it to 30 so they could use "known" actors and actresses.

    • Re:time to die... (Score:4, Informative)

      by BitZtream ( 692029 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @11:01AM (#47272391)

      Ah, spoken in the true voice of slashdot ignorance.

      The protocol is fine, the library isn't that horrible unless your a newbie to dev, nothing needs replaced and it was designed with extensibility to deal with modern problems in a sane way.

      Just because you read some document written by someone who wants to replace it for selfish reasons like making their display system the standard doesn't mean its actually true.

      • Re:time to die... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @11:19AM (#47272585) Journal

        The protocol is fine,

        Except for the fact that it has a limited set of extensions that can be supported and a load of command numbers are used for 'core protocol' stuff that no one has used for over a decade. It has no concept of security (you can easily steal input from another application, for example).

        the library isn't that horrible unless your a newbie to dev

        XCB is pretty nice, but xlib is a clusterfuck. It hides interfaces that need to be used asynchronously for good performance behind synchronous API calls. It's impossible to write an application that performs well over a network and does a nontrivial amount of drawing with xlib. It is with XCB, but it requires carefully designing your toolkit for asynchronous drawing, and all modern X toolkits have too much xlib heritage to easily adapt to using XCB as it's intended to be used, rather than as a lighter-weight xlib.

      • ah, spoken with the voice of slashdotter pontificating out ass.

        x11 is bloated with needless complexity, laggy because of map-expose-draw cycle, built in race conditions that can't be avoided, and has zero consideration for security

        x11 is long overdue for the scrap heap

  • Too old. (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 19, 2014 @09:38AM (#47271313)

    30 is ancient in computer years, the X system is too old for the new generation of developers. I recommend we replace it with a far more superior one written in Javascript and Rails. With AGILE development methods we can have a better system up in a week.

    • With AGILE development methods we can have something in a week. Whether it will be better or worse will depend on the features that could be developed within that sprint.

      Anyway, I'd say 1 week is a very aggressive timeline, right? Do you work as a PM for Accenture?

    • Your kid, but X apis are really dumb and obtuse. About the only thing you can say in its favor is that it makes a little more sense than the old MS windows message pump.

    • That doesn't seem Social enough. Can we integrate microblogging so that all windows can tweet whenever they are repainted?
      • by Linzer ( 753270 )

        Indeed, and mouse click events will be tweeted individually. The client can access them by "following" the relevant window!

        Along the same line, framebuffers will be replaced with tumblr accounts.

        • Can't we just be all HTML5 about it and replace framebuffers with Canvas elements?

          Those are pretty much pathologically inefficient framebuffers with a few convenience drawing primitives thrown in already, so just think of how accessible the venerable PC platform would become for today's web developers if all GPUs had JS interpreters and exposed a Canvas element for each monitor!
    • Absolutely. And my view is we should make sure whatever we build embraces promising new technologies like THE CLOUD. Imagine a future where, instead of however it is X11 works now, it can display applications running on computers that could be anywhere in the world, managed by other people, with you doing no more than connecting to that remote server and launching the user interface for whatever application it is you want to use.

      I bet they never thought of concepts like that when they designed X11...

      • by jbolden ( 176878 )

        No they didn't. Cloud applications run over high latency networks. X11 assumes low latency networks.

    • by gtall ( 79522 )

      With AGILE development methods you will wind up with a dirty snowball of a system that has zero ability to be extended without a complete rewrite.

  • 1994-95 (Score:4, Interesting)

    by wbr1 ( 2538558 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @09:39AM (#47271331)
    Was in school, supposedly the first community college on the internet (ISDN to UVa across town) and we had NeXt workstations. I do not remember if they used X11, but that clued me into Unix. Later that year we wanted to get our gopher and mosaic servers on a better box, so I took an amazing 486DX2 and setup Slackware. There I know I saw X (although it was later removed from the server). IIRC I downloaded the entire set of Slackware discs directly to floppy using FTP from Sunsite the first time and NFS the second from UIUC (after searching hours for open NFS exports in the mirror lists). I did it directly to floppy as I did not have enough HDD space for the files and the currently running OS. I think that was Linux kernel 1.2.10. Am I old?
    • Oh, the memories. 1994 in university, and they had a room of SGI Indy workstations, with Internet connection. Everything was utterly confusing with Unix, X11, ctwm and what not. Asking the wizards for help was pretty scary, as they would stare you down as if you were a waste of perfectly good carbon. Those were good times.

      And then installing Slackware from floppy, onto a 486DX33 I think it was. Getting the X server up and running was pretty scary, which involved getting a supposedly supported graphics card,

    • ...we had NeXt workstations. I do not remember if they used X11

      NeXT machines used Display Postscript not X.

      Am I old?

      Not at all, though there are some younger people around.

      • NeXT machines used Display Postscript not X.

        X11 was available, both commercial and free (e.g. CoXist), as an app that ran on NeXT's Display Postscript. I miss NeXT computers, looked good, performed well, easy to service, easy to program, good networking, good documentation, sported floppies that could write DOS disks which came in handy so many many times in those days before thumb drives. And I remember Display Postscript having some X-like network capability (but I didn't use it much). Besides, both the WWW and Doom, and who knows what else, start

        • by wbr1 ( 2538558 )
          Wherever they be? The machines or the OS? The OS lives on an Mac Fanboi hearts as OS X.
  • WABI (Score:4, Interesting)

    by just_another_sean ( 919159 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @09:45AM (#47271405) Journal

    First time I saw it was also on a Sun. Lowly kids like me (data entry clerk) had to use DOS on the job but the cool guys (engineers) had Sun workstations running WABI*. I was blown away by how much more advanced their stuff was than what we were stuck with. First time actually using it was when I finally managed to get Slackware installed along side Windows 95.

    * Sun's Windows Application Binary Interface [] which allowed a full blown Windows 3.1 installation to run on their "desktop".

  • Sun Lab in '87 (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @09:47AM (#47271417) Homepage Journal
    I saw it in a Sun lab at RPI in '87. It was running some clunky-ass version of CDE. Or maybe it was just plan CDE.

    It's funny, I'm working on a project for which a lot of the components were coded back in the mid '90s. The state of the art really hasn't advanced since then. The basic API (Xlib/Motif/Xcb) are nominally well documented -- you can find books and the library calls have man pages. Newer libraries and X extensions are a hodge-podge of largely-undocumented and generally incompatible API calls that take more work to integrate than they do to program in (Assuming you can find an example to work from.) The actual frameworks typically require you to drink all their kool-aid in order to use the framework. So I could go GTK+ or QT, learn their idioms and framework implementation details and that's great assuming I never want to change frameworks again and am willing to accept their quirks. And outside of QT, everyone (including motif/xlib) re-invent C++ badly with home-rolled type systems which often involve pushing strings around. Brilliant.

    Somehow despite all this it still does what it does better than anything else I've seen. I'm not sure how this is possible, but there you go.

    • by jonwil ( 467024 )

      The abomination that is the glib type system (used by GTK and others) is the perfect example of why reinventing the wheel is bad.

      QT is a much nicer library to program for (and I say this as someone who has used both)

    • And outside of QT, everyone (including motif/xlib) re-invent C++ badly with home-rolled type systems which often involve pushing strings around

      Funny, I always felt that the signals and slots mechanism in Qt was reinventing Objective-C badly...

  • X11 is long-lived, not because it's the best, but because it's good enough and that there are a huge amount of applications depending on it. Changing to something else will just cause pain.

    • Much like Windows XP. But try telling the geniuses around here who think it's just a matter of buying everyone a new PC.

      • Much like Windows XP. But try telling the geniuses around here who think it's just a matter of buying everyone a new PC.

        Nobody round here thinks that - here we all think it's just a matter on sticking [[insert flavour of the month Linux distro]] CD and clicking install. Because it really is that easy to rejuvenate your old XP machine, and all that software you had before has a new free replacement that you just need to learn. If there are any missing features or applications then you didn't really need them because if they were useful there would be a free software equivalent by now. Same for you old files if they won't c

  • by Dishwasha ( 125561 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @09:57AM (#47271541)

    Back when REAL Linux distros were named by the kernel version.

    • by simonbp ( 412489 )

      You mean back before the 20-odd years of kernel 2.6?

      Also, you gotta love the Slackware package management system: "Here's a tarball. Just untar it (as root) in the root directory and hope it doesn't clobber anything you care about."

    • Slackware 2.0.12 (Score:3)
      by Dishwasha (125561) Alter Relationship on 06-19-14 6:57 (#47271541)

      Back when REAL Linux distros were named by the kernel version.

      No, no they weren't. Because when I began using Slackware 2.0, the latest kernel that was provided for it was 1.1.47

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @09:57AM (#47271545) Journal
    Sun diskless workstations. Knew motif window manager inside out. Had taught a unix course using a strange Sony workstation that had a TV card in it displaying live TV in X windows. Eventually became the root (of all evil, according to my students) of the lab.

    Employer morphed from being a Unix shop (1990-2000) to Microsoft + Mainwin (2000-2010) shop, then slowly coming back to display agnostic (2011 - till date) (but limited to X11+OpenGL or MSWin) shop.

  • Worked OK then (more than a few memory leaks). Works much better now.

    Kind of amusing the people who want to get rid of it just because it's old. Especially amusing are the people who seem to think they could re-write it in a week. Delusional but amusing.


  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @10:08AM (#47271653)
    Paul and his adviser, whom I forget, wrote it in the early 1980s at Stanford. MIT liked it and decided to manage its development. It was after Xerox Parc and Apollos distributed graphics system, but before Sun, Apple and MicroSoft. Following Unix's minimalist toolkit naming convention "X" was the command stream and "W" the display api. Our Stanford computer joined in at version #5 on a VAX. It was commercially supperted around version 10 by DEC and Sun. And "froze" at version 11, going into 2nd and 3rd digit numbering after that.

    There was always the intent to make it objected-oriented, hence the tootlkit kludge called Motif. The early 80s was in flux over OO languages Xerox MESA, way-to-slow Smalltalk, ObjectPascal, etc. C++ and ObjectiveC wouldnt be around for a few more years.
  • by weav ( 158099 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @10:11AM (#47271677)

    I was still working at Symbolics back then. We thought it a little silly that the input focus followed the mouse.
    Now I sort of prefer it that way...

  • June, 1997 (Score:4, Interesting)

    by tsqr ( 808554 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @10:13AM (#47271709)

    On a re-purposed Win NT 4.0 box running OpenCaldera 1.0. That was when I first dipped my toes into the Linux pool, and I've been swimming happily ever since.

  • I was a senior in high school and wound up at SIGGRAPH in Boston in 1989. I was doing graphic design and programming for a small company that did medical imaging on the Amiga and we were in the Amiga pavilion. Nearby were some guys who had developed an X11 server and tools to build common X11 programs, with an optical three-button mouse. I think it was Dale Luck's company - I found a relevant announcement:!topic/comp.sys.amiga/ks3jiuCT5oQ

    In 1992 I went to work for a company

  • My campus had some Sparc systems and more DEC systems, but it wasn't until '91 when my campus got a boatload of AIX systems that we really got into it and then shortly after that I got into Linux.

  • In college. I interned for a startup internet service provider in Niagara Falls called Macronet. It was located on my college. They had a BSD/OS server, on the console startx, into twm, using Mosaic. I still use TWM

  • Undergrad CS lab had SGI and HP machines, and another lab had some Suns. Also 3 button mice and a scroll wheel that was a separate unit from the mouse.

    The fun of making things pop-up on other people's screens on the lab. Nothing was locked down by default so unless you changed the permissions anyone could launch a process to display on your screen.

    Neko was fun too.

  • I heard so much about Linux, and how it blew Windows away, in terms of performance.

    At the time, Windows 1995 ran acceptably well on a 386. Linux, with Gnome, was so slow, I could practically count the pixels as they appeared on my screen.

    These days, I use Linux, nearly exclusively. On modern hardware, I think Linux does just fine. But on 1990s era hardware, not so much.

  • by Admiral_Bob2000 ( 1222180 ) on Thursday June 19, 2014 @11:05AM (#47272421)

    I've been using Linux/UNIXes for 15yrs now. One of the beauties of X11 has been the fact that the application programmer typically does not even have to /plan/ for network transparency - it's built in right from the start (in the various graphics toolkits), no special APIs to .

    This means that whenever the users have a need for displaying X11 apps remotely (e.g. needing to deploy new thin clients at short notice to accommodate new staff in a corporate environment - very quick setup time), you just simply set $DISPLAY and away you go. I've long come to count on this feature and I value having that option kept open all the time.

    I believe in the future fibre optic LAN equipment will come down in price and will offer much lower-latency and higher-throughput than today's copper-wired Ethernet. It may even get to the point where transmit times of sending bitmapped real-time graphics over fibre may be as fast as a CPU writing to a reasonably modest PCI/AGP graphics card.

    I think the Wayland project is making a SERIOUS mistake in treating network transparency as a second-class citizen, and will likely see the project relegated to a toy-like status (useful only for gaming and entertainment, or apps that need extremely low video latency like video editing suites) and shunned by the corporate world.

    If the current X11 protocol makes it hard to do anti-aliased text, glossy/brushed GUIs, zooming fading menus, wobbly exploding windows and the like, then what we need is a new set of core drawing primitives, much like Apple's Display Quartz system (IIRC). Call it X12 if you will, but keep the network transparency in and that decision will pay off many times over.

    I personally have no need for such resource-hogging eye-candy - I turn all of that off and prefer a minimalistic slick-but-functional snappy inteface. I am perfectly happy with X11, and all the current-version applications I use work well with it. It has its quirks and faults, but I believe they can be reasoned with and there is certainly room for improvement: []

    I also think the Wayland proposals of polling (pixel-scraping) window buffers and sending them over rdesktop for remoting is only going to lead to massive CPU overhead on shared application servers, for one thing.

    At the very least, I'd like to see the major graphics toolkit groups (Qt, GTK, WxWindows et. al.) collaborate on designing a standard remote drawing protocol that has similar transparency to X11 - then I might have more respect for Wayland attempting to replace X11.

    (sorry for double post - accidentally selected wrong formatting mode. Mod my other post into oblivion if you wish).

    • by LDAPMAN ( 930041 ) works for you and the type of applications you use. It absolutely does not and will not work for whats coming. Do you really want to try to move 4K bitmaps over the network? Some of the things that are "eye candy" for you are going to be needed for the applications and interfaces that are coming. X11 needs to be replaced and unfortunately Wayland is not going to cut it either.

      • by Arker ( 91948 )
        "Do you really want to try to move 4K bitmaps over the network?"

        I dont want to touch a 4k bitmap in any way shape or form. Particularly not over the network.

        "Some of the things that are "eye candy" for you are going to be needed for the applications and interfaces that are coming"

        You have to be more specific. Something is 'coming.' Lovely. Is it something I might actually want on my computer for some reason, or is it more flashy marketing and idiotic overblown effects that I will just be looking for a way t
        • by LDAPMAN ( 930041 )

          Here is an example. An aerospace customer of mine wants to use their CAD and engineering apps from terminals on the shop floor. They do not want to put a high dollar workstation in that environment but they do want the full graphics. The current methods for doing this don't really work acceptably with todays video resolutions, much less with retina/4K resolutions.

          How about remote access for contract developers over VDI? IDEs work better with more screen real estate today. How do you think they are going to

          • by Arker ( 91948 )
            "Here is an example. An aerospace customer of mine wants to use their CAD and engineering apps from terminals on the shop floor. They do not want to put a high dollar workstation in that environment but they do want the full graphics. The current methods for doing this don't really work acceptably with todays video resolutions, much less with retina/4K resolutions."

            CAD is one of those applications I mentioned where you actually need the video bandwidth. Trying to do CAD on a dumb terminal with a remote clie
  • I first saw X on Apollo workstations in 1986. At that date all the Sun workstations in the lab still ran a windowing system called 'News', if I remember correctly. I saw X on both Suns and Silicon Graphics workstations before 1988, and on DEC Station and RS/6000 machines shortly thereafter. We also had PERQ machines in the lab but I don't believe they ever ran X. In those days I used Xerox 1108 and 1186 machines, which didn't run X.

    The first machine I personally owned which ran X was an Acorn R260 running R

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I first remember seeing X11 on a family vacation. We visited my uncle on his remote tropical island on which he was building a theme-park. My sister actually introduced me to it, because she knew it.

  • I started my IT life on DEC/VAX with VT220 terminals. VMS wasn't too. Then Solaris 4.* came along and I had the privilege of setting up a bunch of X-Windows terminals. UNIX, I found, rocked much more than VMS. The best GUI I ever used on X was xterm. Nowadays the herminal emulators on Cygwin are pretty good. The socond best GUI which I ran on X is Eclipse. The Internet browser comes in third.
  • Since, I'm not a programmer, or wasn't at a University in the late 80's, my first exposure to X was in 2002 on a wacky Red Hat 6 variant on a wacky MIPS variant. In fact it was Slashdot where I first heard about Linux, so I'm a johnny-come-lately.

    Since the machine ran RH6, it was a fairly standard distro of that time period, Windowmaker was the default window manager, though others were installed, KDE1, Gnome 1 something or other, FVWM. Default desktop looked something like this: []

They are called computers simply because computation is the only significant job that has so far been given to them.