Well, somewhere in between then and now I got sucked in to transitioning Debian to X.org (using the aforementioned SVN access) and then working on all the things that went along with maintaining X in Debian, some well and others less so. Between transitioning to Xorg, and then transitioning to a modular Xorg, even with the ability to steal Ubuntu's packages it still took about two full years with me being a rookie and all that. There were tons of people who worked on this with me, but it was just a damn big job. Eventually though, etch released with modular X packages, and we were running at a pretty good pace with upstream, so it was time to revisit the problem of configuration again after the two year detour.
The problem of configuration had been reframed for me by having looked at what knoppix was doing and discussions with upstream. Upstream was starting to come to the conclusion that we shouldn't have a config file at all, and that the server should be smart enough to do everything by itself. It was already partially there, it just needed a push in the right direction. This was a major shift in how I thought of it. Coming from a Debian background, where the answer is to always just regenerate or edit your config file, having the server work things out for you was a totally alien idea. But I have my deepest roots in the Macintosh world, so immediately fell in love with it. The problem was that the server had a whole body of code to use if you had no config file at all, and another, with far less automagic goodness, if you had a config file, even if it was a 0 byte file. The goal became to have the server work really well with a minimal config file, so you could override what you don't like in the defaults and let the server figure things out for itself at boot. The way forward was to translate as much of the logic in our configure script in to the X server itself as possible.
Ubuntu had put in a lot of work in to the configuration setup that we automatically benefitted from, so given that most users were happy with things as they were, I was able to carve away at the problem without disrupting anything. And there was a lot to carve out, as the script that runs the config is an absolute mess that was slated by Branden for a rewrite all those years ago. Early on I picked off the low hanging fruits like the font path and modules. Similarly, Redhat's Adam Jackson had also been working on this problem, and he killed off the ServerLayout section as well as putting in lots of critical fixes all over the place elsewhere. More recently, I've gone and cut explicit modesetting out of the configure script. Hardcoding this information is generally a bad idea in the randr 1.2 world, and most of the drivers will do as good or better job of figuring out the modes than our config script would. This let us jettison using the xresprobe program to ask the monitor for the settings to use. This cut out a lot of the code that we had to deal with, simplifying the configure script and letting us all benefit from upstream's work. This leaves a big gaping hole in user configuration, which is something I'm looking to address in a few weeks, but for now there are workarounds like editing your xorg.conf manually to make things work.
Finally, yesterday I was able to upload a version of the script that no longer uses the discover program to figure out what driver to load. I've patched the server to do this at runtime. If there's no driver listed it simply scans the PCI bus, picks out your primary video card, and loads the first driver that claims to support that PCI ID. This let us jettison the last external dependency that the configure script had, so now we have a relatively small chunk of shell script with no external C code and a simplified setup. At this point we're now shipping a more skeletal config file than knoppix ever did simply because it wasn't possible to ship something like this before and have the server work at all. This is a huge milestone for me because finally, after over three years, the problem I originally set out to work on with X is done. There's still bugs to uncover and fix with all of this, but I'm convinced that what we have now is superior to our old method. Eventually, with any luck, xorg.conf will just fade away for most people. There's a lot to work on before that happens though, but I'm happy to have finally gotten here.