Migrating birds on a pink sky to represent migrating a software application.

Are You Ready to Migrate from Motif to a New Toolkit?

By Jeff LeBlanc

While technologies come and go in the software industry, some have stuck around for a very long time. One notable example: The X Windows System, and with it the Motif widget toolkit. In use since the 1980s, X Windows was the first windowing system environment to offer true hardware independence. For its part, Motif has long been embraced in industries that require stability and longevity, such as financial services and aerospace. It has even been seen on the silver screen in such movies as Men in Black and Jurassic Park

Despite this storied existence, eventually all good things must come to an end. Motif was declared as deprecated in Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) version 9, and will no longer be provided as of version 10. This has triggered some difficult decision making in verticals that still require stability and support: continue with an unsupported toolkit – risky at best – or migrate legacy applications to supported toolkits. Though also risky – any time a porting effort is undertaken, there is risk involved – this option also provides a great opportunity to improve and enhance the application, unlike continuing with an unsupported toolkit. 

For instance, porting a legacy application to newer tooling allows you to:

  • Gain support for additional platforms (e.g. Windows) or enjoy full cross-platform support
  • Improve and modernize the user experience (UX)
  • Add new features that were difficult to implement under Motif
  • Move from C to a cleaner, type-safe programming language

Is Porting to Qt Right for Your Legacy Application?

As experts in both the Motif and Qt toolkits we view porting as the natural path to follow. But we appreciate that your decision may rest on the level of effort needed to do the job. You no doubt want to understand how much time it might take to convert X number of screens and dialog boxes from Motif to Qt before committing to porting your application.

Problem is, the answer is “it depends.” 

It depends on the complexity of your application – and, significantly, it depends on the skill and expertise of the developers carrying out the migration. Here’s why.

While it is possible to perform a widget-to-widget conversion from Motif to Qt for the primitive elements (e.g. buttons and labels), dialog boxes and complex widgets can be a bit tricky. Then there’s the fact that Motif and Qt approach the concept of how to lay out elements on the screen a bit differently. The XmForm layout in particular requires a deeper understanding of the intention of the original screen in order to properly convert it. Addressing these types of challenges requires an expert who has encountered – and solved – these issues in the past.

Same thing with challenges around making the screens actually accomplish what they were intended to do. At the highest level, users expect to interact with the screens (push buttons, type in data etc.) and have the application respond appropriately. But since many legacy Motif applications were not written with a clean division between the UI layer and the business logic, separating that behavior to cleanly move to a new toolkit very often requires that changes to the software architecture be put into place. In our experience, this is typically where a significant amount of the project effort lies.

Another potentially major issue is that of migrating any custom widgets that might have been written for the project. In Motif, a true custom widget is often many thousands of lines of code because of the way the X toolkit was written to simulate subclassing using the C language. Fortunately, using a language like C++ that is actually object oriented can dramatically cut down the amount of code.  

(Speaking as a former trainer of both Motif and Qt, I can attest that widget writing in Motif was so complex it took a full five-day course to teach, whereas widget writing in Qt was an exercise in subclassing QObject that we covered in an afternoon.)

Migration Options Beyond Qt

If you’re on board with porting your application but Qt isn’t quite the right fit you have a number of other options, among them Flutter and GTK. Thanks to its open source values, cross platform capabilities, thriving ecosystem, and high-octane features like hot reload, Flutter has captured the attention of automakers, manufacturers and others seeking streamlined embedded development and best-in-class user experiences. 

Other options include .NET MAUI, Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), React.JS and Angular. For applications that have heavy graphics needs, such as imaging and data visualization, OpenGL and Vulkan can be used. Even Unity, while generally thought of as a graphics engine, can be used to create full-featured user interfaces. Like all software projects, the right choice ultimately comes down to the specific project requirements.

Unsupported Toolkits Bring Risk

While migration can bring risk and uncertainty, continuing to rely on an unsupported toolkit can bring vastly greater risks. If you’re leaning toward migration, you can mitigate porting risk by working with experts like ICS who are skilled in both technologies. We’ve supported Motif for decades and have successfully ported scores of complex, high-impact, and regulated applications.

If you’re considering migrating your legacy Motif application – ready to say goodbye to outdated UIs that no longer meet expectations around performance, portability and adaptability – I encourage you to reach out to us at ICS. You can also learn more about porting from Motif to Qt in our on-demand webinar, and explore our Flutter services.