'Command line text editor' is not the same as 'terminal-based text editor'

May 30, 2016

A while back, I saw a mention about what was called a new command line text editor. My ears perked up, and then I was disappointed:

Today's irritation: people who say 'command line text editor' when they mean 'terminal/cursor-based text editor'.

I understand why the confusion comes up, I really do; an in-terminal full screen editor like vi generally has to be started from the command line instead of eg from a GUI menu or icon. But for people like me, the two are not the same and another full screen, text based editor along the lines of vi (or nano or GNU Emacs without X) is not anywhere near as interesting as a new real command line text editor is (or would be).

So, what do people like me mean by 'command line text editor'? Well, generally some form of editor that you use from the command line but that doesn't take over your terminal screen and have you cursor around it and all that. The archetype of interactive command line text editors is ed, but there are other editors which have such a mode (sam has one, for example, although it's not used very much in practice).

Now, a lot of the nominal advantages of ed and similar things are no longer applicable today. Once upon a time they were good for things like low bandwidth connections where you wanted to make quick edits, or slow and heavily loaded machines where you didn't want to wait for even vi to start up and operate. These days this is not something that most people worry about, and full screen text editors undeniably make life easier on you. Paradoxically, this is a good part of why I would be interested in a new real command line editor. Anyone who creates one in this day and age probably has something they think it does really well to make up for not being a full screen editor, and I want to take a look at it to see this.

I also think that there are plausible advantages of a nice command line text editor. The two that I can think of are truly command line based editing (where you have commands or can easily build shell scripts to do canned editing operations, and then you invoke the command to do the edit) and quick text editing in a way that doesn't lose the context of what's already on your screen. I imagine the latter as something akin to current shell 'readline' command line editing, which basically uses only a line or two on the screen. I don't know if either of these could be made to work well, but I'd love to see someone try. It would certainly be different from what we usually get.

(I don't consider terminal emulator alternate screens to be a solution to the 'loss of context' issue, because you still can't see the context at the same time as your editing. You just get it back after you quit your editor again.)

Written on 30 May 2016.
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Last modified: Mon May 30 00:16:19 2016
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