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Wayland is a replacement for the X11 window system protocol and architecture with the aim to be easier to develop, extend, and maintain.

Wayland is the language (protocol) that applications can use to talk to a display server in order to make themselves visible and get input from the user (a person). A Wayland server is called a "compositor". Applications are Wayland clients.

Wayland also refers to a system architecture. It is not just a server-client relationship between a compositor and applications. There is no single common Wayland server like Xorg is for X11, but every graphical environment brings with it one of many compositor implementations. Window management and the end user experience are often tied to the compositor rather than swappable components.

A core part of Wayland architecture is libwayland: an inter-process communication library that translates a protocol definition in XML to a C language API. This library does not implement Wayland, it merely encodes and decodes Wayland messages. The actual implementations are in the various compositor and application toolkit projects.

Wayland does not restrict where and how it is used. A Wayland compositor could be a standalone display server running on Linux kernel modesetting and evdev input devices or on many other operating systems, or a nested compositor that itself is an X11 or Wayland application (client). Wayland can even be used in application-internal communication as is done in some web browsers.

Part of the Wayland project is also the Weston reference implementation of a Wayland compositor. Weston can run as an X client or under Linux KMS and ships with a few demo clients. The Weston compositor is a minimal and fast compositor and is suitable for many embedded and mobile use cases.