Chapter 10: Emacs-Type Editors

Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
  He chortled in his joy.

With a thesis subtitle of "A Cookbook for an Emacs" and this book's subtitle of "Emacs for Modern Times," it is a safe bet that I would get around to discussing Emacs-type editors at some point. And so I have.

First, I will admit to being biased. I have used Emacs-type editors exclusively for going on fifteen years now (except for a brief stint in durance vile on a Macintosh). In addition, I have implemented or worked on implementations of a half-dozen Emacs-type editors. This chapter will describe what it is about an Emacs-type editor that makes it special.

"What Do You Mean, 'Emacs-type?' "

This chapter discusses "Emacs-type" editors and not a particular "Emacs" editor because, due to its very nature, there isn't one definitive "Emacs" editor. The closest that you can come to such a thing is either the original Emacs-on-TECO or Gnu-Emacs.

The Command Set

The specifics of the Emacs command set will always be shifting and changing. Even details on how the basic commands operate will change. However, the broad outlines of the basic commands are pretty constant, which is to say that an editor that does not implement them is not considered to be an Emacs-type editor. Appendix C lists one Emacs command set and a set of changes to it.

By and large, the Emacs command set follows the design guidelines presented in the previous chapter. Those places where it falls short are usually either physical constraints (there are only a limited number of keys available), design compromises (to achieve A one must trade off B), or the ever-present "historical reasons" (it was a good idea at the time and, while we know better now, it is too ingrained to change). All things considered, the Emacs command set meets the design guidelines better than any other editor that I am aware of.

Some editors never get beyond providing the command set. These editors are neither extensible nor provide an extended environment. These limitations may be due to the implementation environment or merely the amount of effort that is available to devote to the project. There is a place for such editors (they are listed in Appendix B as "command set"). After all, an implementor should be able to decide to create a small editor without feeling obligated to spend years on the project. Given that this decision has been made, it is better to use the Emacs command set than any other (at least in my opinion).

The Extended Environment

Emacs-type editors have been and continue to be used for many things besides editing text. Here are some examples.

Emulation: If you or another user likes a different editor's command set for some reason, you can just emulate it in an Emacs-type editor. Thus, you can still have all of the power of an Emacs and your favorite command set as well.

Electronic mail: A text editor can be the primary interface to a mail system. Messages can be composed by editing a buffer and can be sent with a command. Mail can be read and managed by reading it into a buffer and having commands to perform such operations as "move to the next message" and "summarize all messages." Having the full power of an editor available makes it easy to un-delete an accidentally deleted message or to copy part of the text of a message into one's reply. In addition, you have only minimal additional learning in order to use the system very effectively.

Command shell: A text editor can be the primary interface to the operating system. Command lines can be edited with the full power of the editor before being evaluated. The past record of interaction can be kept and parts of it examined or re-used in new command lines. If the operating system does not have support for advanced terminals, a display editor can offer its interface for use by other programs. Other programs would then take advantage of the terminal independence of the editor. Alternatively, other programs would insert their output into a buffer and the editor would become an entire terminal-management system. This function has been somewhat superseded by a window system. But again, why learn two systems when you only need to learn one?

Compilation: A text editor can work closely with a compiler to speed turnaround when developing software.

Debugging: A text editor can be used by a debugger. Multiple buffers and multiple windows can be used to examine (perhaps multiple) source files, interact with the debugger, and see the output/input of the program as it runs. In addition, a debugger might use a window or two to do such things as constantly show the values of selected variables.

File interface: A text editor can be an interface to a complicated file. For example, an indexed sequential file can be updated by providing editor commands to read and write entries (adding or deleting them can be managed as well). The full power of the editor is available for editing the contents of the entry.

File system interface: A text editor can provide a smooth interface to the file system. A directory can be read by the editor and "edited" by the user. Files can be deleted or otherwise changed in a smooth manner by merely moving to the file name and giving a command (e.g., "delete").

Binary files: A text editor can be used to examine and -- when absolutely necessary -- modify binary files. It can thus replace various patching programs.

Again, all of these functions are currently performed by one or more Emacs-type editors. The main advantage to building them off of the editor is that, even in the absence of such features, most users spend the bulk of their time using the text editor (or word processor, etc.). By extending that environment, only minimal learning is required to use those features. Users are thus free to get work done instead of having to spend their time reading manuals. This extended environment is one of the hallmarks of an Emacs-type editor.


The final hallmark of an Emacs-type editor is extensibility. Emacs was born because of the extensibility of its predecessor, TECO. TECO was extensible and many of its users took advantage of that extensibility to write their own command or change the existing ones. Eventually, one person (Richard Stallman) took a large number of those extension packages and created a "standard" package of Editor MACroS: EMACS. With extensibility in its heritage and even in its name, an Emacs-type editor is expected to be extensible.

Extensibility means, quite simply, that end users can change any of the features of the editor. There should be no feature that a sufficiently dedicated end user cannot change. This implies that the full source code of the implementation is available to all end users (and that is why GNU-Emacs is distributed under its "CopyLeft" policy).

Now, not every end user will want to recode redisplay. However, the principle remains. Most end users will only want to tweak a few parameters and maybe "fix" a command or two. That's great and you should encourage such changes by making it easy to make them.

Now that the importance of extensibility has been explained, it is easy to see why the Emacs command set cannot be standardized: each user will want to change it. In a way, the Emacs command set can be compared to a ball of mud. You can add more to it, or take some away, and you will still have a ball of mud. (Actually, this property is true of most extensible systems.) That is also why any comparison between an implementation of an Emacs-type editor and any other editor is pointless: the Emacs-type editor can be changed (and may already have been) to overcome any shortcoming.

Questions to Probe Your Understanding

Identify those ways in which the Emacs command set does not meet the design guidelines listed in the previous chapter. (Easy to Medium)

Identify other editors or similar programs that offer extended environments. (Easy)

Identify other editors or similar programs that are extensible. (Easy)

What other programs would you like to be extensible that aren't? (Easy)

Copyright 1999 by Craig A. Finseth.

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