Vivek Haldar

New frontiers in text editing

Over the last couple of months I’ve watched the unfolding drama of TextMate lovers scrambling to find a replacement after it was open-sourced, and presumed abandoned. The ensuing searching of editors and souls shed some light into what geeks seem to want in an editor these days. And that seems to be (1) good looks (at least on the Mac, because “things are pretty here”) and (2)… some feature and performance soup that nobody can agree upon.

What I don’t understand is: why should you ever care how your editor looks, unless you’re trying to win a screenshot competition? The primary factor in looking good should be the choice of a good font at a comfortable size, and a syntax coloring theme that you like. And that is not something specific to an editor. Editors like Emacs and vi have almost no UI! If Emacs is configured right, the only UI it has is the modeline and the minibuffer.

People talk about getting used to a new editor, but over time, it is precisely the opposite that should happen–the editor should get used to us.

I watched this drama from my perch upon Mt. Emacs. If this makes me sound like an Emacs elitist snob, so be it! Now, I’m typing these words into Byword on a Mac. For me, it serves as the small home kitchen knife compared to the full chef’s knife set that is Emacs.

There are times when I just need to serially dump a large number of words from my head into the digital ether, and that does not require much editor sophistication. There are other times (the majority of my day job) when I need juggling between dozens of files and shells and compiles and regexes and searches and syntax comprehension. That’s when I use Emacs.

Overall, I think text editing is a solved problem. Text editors are like wine. The older the better. You do not want a shiny new text editor. You want the text editor that has been around long enough and used by enough geeks that every conceivable pattern of manipulating symbols on the screen has been thought of, and crystallized into a re-usable pack.

The big unsolved problem in text editing is to do it without a keyboard, whose use I think peaked sometime in 2011. On tablets and phones. On devices where the entry and manipulation of text remains a royal pain, because we haven’t yet figured out a way to do it. The challenge is to never make someone think “damn, I really wish I had a keyboard right now!”