Why ed(1) is not a good editor today

August 22, 2018

I'll start with my tweet:

Heretical Unix opinion time: ed(1) may be the 'standard Unix editor', but it is not a particularly good editor outside of a limited environment that almost never applies today.

There is a certain portion of Unixdom that really likes ed(1), the 'standard Unix editor'. Having actually used ed for a not insignificant amount of time (although it was the friendlier 'UofT ed' variant), I have some reactions to what I feel is sometimes overzealous praise of it. One of these is what I tweeted.

The fundamental limitation of ed is that it is what I call an indirect manipulation interface, in contrast to the explicit manipulation interfaces of screen editors like vi and graphical editors like sam (which are generally lumped together as 'visual' editors, so called because they actually show you the text you're editing). When you edit text in ed, you have some problems that you don't have in visual editors; you have to maintain in your head the context of what the text looks like (and where you are in it), you have to figure out how to address portions of that text in order to modify them, and finally you have to think about how your edit commands will change the context. Copious use of ed's p command can help with the first problem, but nothing really deals with the other two. In order to use ed, you basically have to simulate parts of ed in your head.

Ed is a great editor in situations where the editor explicitly presenting this context is a very expensive or outright impossible operation. Ed works great on real teletypes, for example, or over extremely slow links where you want to send and receive as little data as possible (and on real teletypes you have some amount of context in the form of an actual printout that you can look back at). Back in the old days of Unix, this described a fairly large number of situations; you had actual teletypes, you had slow dialup links (and later slow, high latency network links), and you had slow and heavily overloaded systems.

However, that's no longer the situation today (at least almost all of the time). Modern systems and links can easily support visual editors that continually show you the context of the text and generally let you more or less directly manipulate it (whether that is through cursoring around it or using a mouse). Such editors are easier and faster to use, and they leave you with more brainpower free to think about things like the program you're writing (which is the important thing).

If you can use a visual editor, ed is not a particularly good editor to use instead; you will probably spend a lot of effort (and some amount of time) on doing by hand something that the visual editor will do for you. If you are very practiced at ed, maybe this partly goes away, but I maintain that you are still working harder than you need to be.

The people who say that ed is a quite powerful editor are correct; ed is quite capable (although sadly limited by only editing a single file). It's just that it's also a pain to use.

(They're also correct that ed is the foundation of many other things in Unix, including sed and vi. But that doesn't mean that the best way to learn or understand those things is to learn and use ed.)

This doesn't make ed a useless, vestigial thing on modern Unix, though. There are uses for ed in non-interactive editing, for example. But on modern Unix, ed is a specialized tool, much like dc. It's worth knowing that ed is there and roughly what it can do, but it's probably not worth learning how to use it before you need it. And you're unlikely to ever be in a situation where it's the best choice for interactive editing (and if you are, something has generally gone wrong).

(But if you enjoy exploring the obscure corners of Unix, sure, go for it. Learn dc too, because it's interesting in its own way and, like ed, it's one of those classical old Unix programs.)

Written on 22 August 2018.
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Last modified: Wed Aug 22 01:17:53 2018
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