Technology Tales

Adventures & experiences in contemporary technology

A look at Emacs

10th August 2010

It’s amazing what work can bring your way in terms of technology. For me, (GNU) Emacs Has proved to be such a thing recently. It may have been around since 1975, long before my adventures in computing ever started in fact, but I am asking myself why I never really have used it much. There are vague recollections of my being aware of its existence in the early days of my using UNIX over a decade ago. Was it a shortcut card with loads of seemingly esoteric keyboard shortcuts and commands that put me off it back then? The truth may have been that I got bedazzled with the world of Microsoft Windows instead and so began a distraction that lingered until very recently. As unlikely as it looks now, Word and Office would have been part of the allure of what some consider as the dark side these days. O how OpenOffice.org and their ilk have changed that state of affairs…

The unfortunate part of the Emacs story might be that its innovations were never taken up as conventions by mainstream computing. If its counterparts elsewhere used the same keyboard shortcuts, it would feel like learning such an unfamiliar tool. Still, it’s not as if there isn’t logic behind it because it will work both in a terminal session (where I may have met it for the first time) and a desktop application GUI. The latter is the easier to learn and the menus list equivalent keyboard shortcuts for many of their entries too. For a fuller experience though, I can recommend the online manual and you can buy it in paper form too if you prefer.

One thing that I discovered recently is that external factors can sour the impressions of a piece of software.For instance, I was using a UNIX session where the keyboard mapping weren’t optimal. There’s nothing like unfamiliar behaviour for throwing you off track because you felt your usual habits were being obstructed. For instance, finding that a Backspace key is behaving like a Delete one is such an obstruction. It wasn’t the fault of Emacs and I have found that using Ctrl+K (C-k in the documentation) to delete whole lines is invaluable.

Apart from keyboard mapping niggles, Emacs has to be respected as a powerful piece of software in its own right. It may not have the syntax highlighting capabilities of some, like gedit or NEdit for instance, but I have a hunch that a spot of Lisp programming would address that need. What you get instead is support for version control systems like RCS or CVS along with integration with GDB for debugging programs written in a number of languages. Then, there are features like file management, email handling, newsgroup browsing, a calendar and calculator that make you wonder if they tried to turn a text editor into something like an operating system. With Google trying to use Chrome as the basis of one, it almost feels as is Emacs was ahead of its time though that may have been more due to its needing work within a UNIX shell in those far-off pre-GUI days. It really is saying something that it has stood the test of time when so much has fallen by the wayside. Like Vi, it looks as if the esteemable piece of software is showing no signs of going away just yet. Maybe it was well designed in the beginning and the thing certainly seems more than a text editor with its extras. Well, it has offer a good reason for making its way into Linux too…

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