The End of the Editor Wars

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 11, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

For years, the text editors Vi (and its successor Vim) and Emacs have been seen as rivals. In recent years, the rivalry has been largely a subject of jokes, but in the days before the desktop, it was serious enough, and the subject of endless flame wars. Even now, you hardly count as a hacker if you haven't taken sides, although taking sides can be dangerous in itself; I know of at least one Emacs user who lost their chance of a job at a company where the standard was Vim. Nobody seems to have noticed yet that the editor wars are over, or that Vim won handily.

When I first became involved in free software, the distinction between Vi and Emacs supporters seemed real. Emac supporters in my unscientific observations, seemed to be older on the whole, although Vi had its old-timers as well. Just as Apple users are supposed to be, Emac users seem more intuitive, and Vi users more pragmatic. For a while, it even seemed to me that Emac supporters grew in numbers as you approached the Atlantic seaboard, although I now question that observation. But over the last fifteen years, Emacs users shrank in number until in 2015 it is only one of many editors.

I became aware of this shift eight months ago, when I was technical editor for the latest edition of a Unix and Linux primer.  The book had grown with each edition, and the writers were looking for cuts. For a while, they considered paring down mention of Emacs to a few sentences in passing, but, being well aware of the editing wars, in the end they settled for offering a chapter on Emacs online as a bonus for readers.

This decision was my first indication that the times had changed, but the LinuxQuestions Members Choice Awards for 2013 and 2014 suggest to me that the decision was sensible. In those two years, Emacs polled 8% and 9%, while Vi and Vim together polled 37% and 38% -- over four and a half times more than Emacs.

LinuxQuestions, of course, is a specialty site, its readers consisting of experts and beginners who are advanced enough to have found their way to the site. But a command line text editor is an expert tool by definition, so the poll probably reflects the opinion of users knowledgeable enough to make a choice, especially since it was consistent over two years.

Moreover, even if you assume a broad margin of error, the pollings aren't even close. With all the various text editors available today, Vi and Vim continue to be the choice of over a third of users, while Emacs well back in the pack, no longer a competitor for the most popular text editor.

The reason why
So far as I can see, Vi/Vim had no decisive moment of victory. More likely, there was simply a slow shift in user preferences. Why the shift happened, I can only speculate.

Perhaps Emac's decline -- like its former ascendancy -- was due to its close association with its author Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Both Stallman and the FSF seem to have declined in influence since the conferences and compromises that led to the release of the third version of the GNU General Public License in 2007, and they could have dragged down Emac with it.

More likely, Emacs was the victim of competition. The command line editor nano scored roughly the same as Emacs in the LinuxQuestions polls, while the desktop editors gedit and Kate scored slightly better. Another sixteen editors scored .1-4%. Almost all these editors can be learned in a matter of minutes, while Emacs' arcane features are the subject of jokes, even among users..

Admittedly, Vi can be almost as arcane as Emacs, but you need to learn less to start using Vi. Its arcaneness comes largely in the advanced commands, and its commands are consistently short than Emac's, which sometimes seem perfectly designed for anyone who happens to be an octopus.

Just as importantly, while both Vi and Emacs have package managers, Vi's various package managers are better organized than anything on Emacs and some of them can be configured for automatic updates. By contrast, where Emacs holds the advantage is usually in configuration and customization -- areas that many users take some learning to appreciate, assuming they get to them at all.

However, venturing these opinions risks rekindling the editor wars when they no longer have a point. For whatever combination of reasons, the wars are over, ending with Vi almost as popular as ever, and Emacs in decline.

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