Emacs is a text editor with ambitions to be an operating system. I do not use Emacs, though I once did, and I still find it intriguing. I’d like to find something similar that acts more like a Windows program.
GNU Emacs began in 1984 and has been in constant development ever since. The current version is 23.1. How many applications from 1984 are still in widespread use today? The only other one that comes to mind is TeX.
I used Emacs in graduate school and for a few years after that. I was fairly fluent with Emacs, though I never customized it much. I intended to learn Emacs Lisp and all that, but it never happened.
When I started developing Windows software I used Emacs at first, but the benefits of Visual Studio soon persuaded me give up my old editor. It was much easier to go with the flow.
I’ve revisited Emacs a couple times over the years. I still have some of the keystrokes burned into my memory. I use it on Linux now and then, but I mostly work on Windows, and my experience using Emacs on Windows has been frustrating to say the least. Tasks that are trivial in any Windows application, such as printing and spell checking, are surprisingly difficult to set up in Emacs. I’m sure it is possible to resolve these problems, though I never did.
The problems with printing and spell checking are part of the larger issue that Emacs is so idiosyncratic. It behaves nothing like a typical Windows program. Some people may say that’s a good thing. But it makes life more complicated if you switch between Emacs and more conventional Windows software.
Emacs is no more a typical Mac application than it is a typical Windows application. And yet my impression is that this is less of a problem for Mac users. I’d like to understand whether this is true and if so why.
One of the things I liked about Emacs was the way you could “live” there. An expert Emacs user might work inside Emacs all day, using it as an editor, debugger, shell, file system explorer, email program, etc. Steve Yegge is such an expert. When he blogged about his move from Windows to Mac, he said the main reason for the switch was that he prefers the appearance of the fonts on a Mac. Changing operating systems was not a big deal for Yegge because he didn’t really live in Windows before, nor does he live in OS X now. He lives in Emacs. He concluded his essay by saying
So I’ll keep using my Macs. They’re all just plumbing for Emacs, anyway. And now my plumbing has nicer fonts.
Living inside Emacs comes at a price. Part of that price is writing lots of Emacs Lisp to glue things together. Another part of that price is the commitment to practicing using Emacs. As Yegge says elsewhere
… you need to make a serious, lifelong commitment to Emacs in order to master it. … So it’s not an editor for the faint of heart …
Yikes! I’m not ready to make a serious, lifelong commitment to a piece of software. To my wife? Yes. To my text editor? No.
One of the best features of Emacs is that it has custom “modes” for various kinds of files. Instead of using a separate program for editing every kind of file, Emacs users use one program with different modes. As soon as a new file type comes out, say for a new programming language, someone will post an Emacs mode for that new language.
I’d like to find an editor on Windows that is analogous to Emacs. By that I mostly have in mind a powerful, highly configurable editor with support for many file types. I’d want it to behave like a Windows application, not a foreign transplant, and integrate well with .NET.
I’ve looked at a few Windows editors that claim to be highly configurable but are not well documented. So if such an editor is configurable, it’s configurable for the person who wrote it or possibly for anyone else willing to study the source code.
Any suggestions for a general purpose Windows editor? For starters, I’d be pleased to find something that’s good at editing LaTeX and HTML.
Update (2 April 2010): I’ve decided to give Emacs another try.
This post started out as an update to my earlier post One program to rule them all.