I wish new editors thought about their overall ecology too

December 31, 2016

I have an enduring peculiar interest in new editors, or at least the nifty sounding ones. I tend to read about interesting sounding new ones like kakoune (via), and I keep track of a few here and there, like vis. But increasingly often when I do this I wind up feeling that I'm engaging in what is basically an intellectual exercise, not something that's ever going to have a practical outcome where I find a new editor I want to add to my environment.

There are probably a number of reasons for this, but one that I've become increasingly aware of is that what often matters is not the editor by itself but the editor's entire ecology. Emacs is the poster child for this; Emacs by itself is so-so, but add Magit, go-mode, flycheck, and so on, and it becomes extremely compelling. Even though I don't use them, Vim also has a similar ecology of add-ons that orbit around it and vastly extend the editor's power. Many serious users of an editor are going to end up caring quite a bit about this editor ecology, as a good one can kind of create a new editor (as with web browsers).

(There are people who like minimal editors, but my impression is that there aren't that many any more. Also, my bias is that this applies more to writing code than to writing prose, although it's handy to have things like in-editor spellchecking even for prose.)

Very few new editors seem to think very much about how to build up such an ecology around them. Their pitches and stories are about the new ways of editing that they're going to enable with their core features, typically with no mention about anything else. I understand why people do this (new core features are the sexy bit), but I also think that a modern editor that wants to have a real chance needs to think about how to build up that ecology from day one. In fact, I'll go further than that: I think it's high time we got a new editor that really made it easy to build out this ecology. I don't know what it would look like (although I suspect that Acme has some important ideas to pass on), but I want to see it.

(Atom is one new editor that has explicitly thought about this, but I can't really think of anything else.)

At this point, a new editor without much clear thought about its overall ecology feels like either a toy or an incomplete design (depending on how charitable I am). It's nice to look at, maybe it has some cute ideas, but as a toy it's nothing I'm ever likely to use. Maybe someday I'll stumble over an editor that has such a revolutionary core that I don't care about the rest, but it seems unlikely; we've had decades to work on editing ideas, and honestly at this point a lot of the 'new' ideas are rehashing variations of old ones. There is nothing wrong with a good rehash of well established ideas (that's arguably what Go is), but it's also generally limited in its fundamental appeal.

This does kind of make me sad. I've really loved a few editors I've stumbled over, like Sam and Acme, and they've really challenged and changed my ideas of what editing can be like. I'd like to think that there's a future editor out there that can still do the same thing, even if it seems unlikely. But I guess the possibility will keep me looking at new neat sounding new editors every so often, even if they do wind up making me shrug.

(This elaborates on some tweets of mine.)

Comments on this page:

By MikeP at 2017-01-03 17:12:49:

Have you looked at Sublime Text? It's not free so maybe not, but it does seem to have a reasonably healthy ecosystem, and I use a few of its packages myself.

By cks at 2017-01-03 17:34:11:

I haven't looked at Sublime Text for various reasons, including that it's commercial and that what generally makes me interested in a new editor is that it's trying to do something unusual and interesting sounding.

(One way to put it is that I'm not looking for a new editor, I'm looking for new takes on how to edit text and work with things and so on. Hence why I haven't particularly looked at Atom either, although I know it exists; it strikes me very much as another incarnation of what is by now a quite familiar editor/IDE model. There is nothing wrong with this model and there are good reasons why it's popular, but it's not new and novel by now.)

Written on 31 December 2016.
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