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...making Linux just a little more fun!
The Ultimate Editor
By Stephen Bint

Somewhere, out there, is a C++ programmer whom destiny has chosen to be our liberator.

The Ultimate Editor's Time Has Come

How can it be that Windows users are spoiled for choice of excellent text editors, while not one decent one exists for the Linux console? Linux is a better OS, supported by better programmers who are dedicated to producing better tools for eachother's benefit. The text editor is the programmer's most important and frequently used tool. Yet Linux console editors are rubbish. How can this be?

Those of us who migrate from windows to Linux expect a text editor, at the very least, to allow selection of text with the mouse and to have mouse-sensitive menus and dialogs. Of all the editors only mcedit, the editor built in to the Midnight Commander disk navigator, has these features. The rest have no dialogs and either no mouse interface or a very limited, stupid one.

Yet even mcedit has a fatal flaw. If there is anything about its behaviour you don't like, or a function it lacks which you would like to add, you will find that reverse-engineering the source to solve that problem is more difficult than writing your own text editor from scratch. Unfortunately mcedit is quite basic, so it really needs added functionality and there is no easy way to add it.

What is the point of Open Source being open, if it is so complicated and poorly documented as to be impenetrable to anyone but the author?

Let's face it, we are all the same. We love writing code and hate writing docs. Writing slick algorithms is fun but explaining how they work to newbies is a bore. Yet if someone were to take the trouble to write an editor with maintenace in mind and build in a simple way to add C++ functions to menus, it might be the last editor ever written. No one would bother to write a text editor if one existed, whose behaviour was easy to change and to which any function could be added.


Stallmanist Fundamentalists may say at this point, emacs is extensible. So it is, but you need to learn a second language to extend it. Besides that, the basic editor has a crude and confusing user interface which cannot be improved by adding lisp modules.

Some of us who aspire to use Linux are ordinary people, not software supermen. It is cruel and unnecessary to tell someone struggling to learn their first language, that they must simultaneously learn a second language in order to make their editor work they way they want it to.

It will never do. Emacs isn't a tool. It's an intelligence test. It is time stupid people fought back against the elitists who are so clever, they find learning emacs a breeze. Notice that you do not have to learn how to use mcedit. It does what you expect so there is nothing to learn.

The Ultimate Editor would be what emacs should have been: an extensible editor with an intuitive mouse-and-menu interface. [Editor's note: emacs was born before mice and pulldown menus were invented.] Instead of complicating the picture with a second language, the extensions would be written in C++. It would come with a programmer's guide, explaining how to install your own menu commands and also describing the anatomy of the source so that you can easily locate the module you are after if you want to change something about its basic behaviour. It would be a do-it-yourself editor kit.

O, Beautiful Tool

If the Ultimate Editor existed, this is what it would be like. You would download it and build it and find it has the basic functionality of mcedit. It would have mouse selection, mouse-sensitive menus and a file open dialog box that allows you to navigate the disk by double-clicking on directories.

It would have few functions: File Open, File Save, File Save As, Exit, Cut, Copy, Paste, Delete and Help. At first there would be no search function, but the README would explain that the source file for the search function is included and would give simple instructions for how to add it. The lines to be added to the source would already be there, but commented out, to make it easy to add the search function.

To add the search function you would have to:

1. Move its source file to the editor's src directory

2. Declare the function at the top of main.cc like this:

   int show_search_dlg();

3. Add a line to main() (actually uncomment a line) like this:

   ed.add_menu_cmd( show_search_dlg, "Search", "Edit", F2_key, SHIFT_PRESSED );

...which installs a command labelled "Search" on the "Edit" menu, which can be activated directly by pressing Shift-F2.

4. In the Makefile, add (uncomment) a compile rule for the source file and add its name to the list of objects to be linked.

5. Run Make and find that the search function is now on the menu.

Having followed this procedure, even a complete newbie will know how to write their own menu functions. The editor will be a global variable, (C++ object) accessible in any source file the user writes, through its header file. Its member functions will report the states of all its internal variables, such as cursor position and area selected. The text array containing the file being edited will be accessible as a member variable, so that the file can be scanned and modified within the user function.

Living Colour

Usually, the logic of colourization is imposed on users. Some editors offer a dialog to change the colours and to add keywords, but the logic is dictated by the author.

The Ultimate Editor will offer an easy way for users to write their own colourization routines. Apart from enabling people to colourize rare and eccentric languages, this feature will unlock the hidden potential of colourization.

Think how many ways you could choose to colour source and what an aid to reverse engineering it could be. Depending on your purpose, you might want to colour identifiers according to which header file they are declared in, or whether they are automatic or allocated, or use colours to indicate their scope. You might choose to have several colouring schemes installed and switch between them with hot keys.

To make colourizing simple, the Ultimate Editor will store its files in file arrays which contain two arrays of strings - one for the text and another for the colours. The file array will keep the sizes of the strings in these arrays synchronized so that, for every character stored in the text array, there is always a byte representing its colour at the same co-ordinates in the colour array.

The editor will always draw on the colour array when it refreshes, so all the programmer has to do in order to colour a character at certain co-ordinates, is change the value in the colour array at those same co-ordinates and refresh the display.

Ninety Percent Widgets

From the user's point of view, dialog boxes appear to be a small part of a text editor. From the programmer's perspective, it is the other way round. The editable fields which appear in dialogs are fully functional editing windows with a couple of features disabled. So to write the Ultimate Editor is really to write the Ultimate Widget Library.

A well-written widget library with good docs is more than an accessory to an extensible editor. If users become familiar with the library in order to improve the editor, they can use it to produce configuration dialogs which assist non-experts in configuring other software, by asking simple questions and writing out their wishes in a config file.

Linuxconf is a very important configuration tool, but it is fading like a dead language because it is hard to use. Because it is hard to use, it is hard to get enthusiastic about improving it. Users and programmers both drift instead towards other, distribution-specific configuration programs. If linuxconf was rewritten to show mouse-sensitive dialogs that behave like proper dialogs (like X-windows dialogs), it might grow to include modules to enable clueless newbies to configure any popular package.

Do you not agree, that the main obstacle to the popularity of Linux, is esotericism? I mean, no-one bothers to write software for newbies because only software experts ever use Linux. The growth of Linux is being prevented by an elitist Catch-22. If idiot-friendly configuration programs were not important to the popularity of an OS, would Microsoft have lavished so much time and money on them?

Rewriting linuxconf with a simple but modern widget library would be the first step to making what it should be - a project that never ends. It should be continually growing as more modules are added, until it becomes the one-stop-shop through which all Linux software can be configured by children.

A Little Help

I want this challenge to be open to anyone who knows C++. Because interfacing with the mouse, keyboard and colour-text screen under Linux is a low-level nightmare, I have produced an interface library which makes it as simple under Linux as it is under DOS. I recommend it over Slang for the purpose of writing an editor for several reasons.

First, the Slang source (including docs and demo programs) zipped is 740k, whereas my library's source zips to 42k. Second, Slang does not report mouse movement, so a Slang program cannot drag-select with the mouse. Third, the colouring system in Slang is complicated, but mine represents the screen as an EGA-style buffer of character/colour byte pairs.

I wrote my library after an attempt to use Slang myself drove me to the conclusion that its all-platform capability generated an unacceptable overhead and took less than full advantage of the potential of the Linux console. I don't doubt that the author of Slang is a better programmer than me, but I have produced a library specifically to serve programmers who want to produce the first adequate editor for the Linux console.

You can download it here: http://members.lycos.co.uk/ctio/

And now that interfacing with the console is as simple under Linux as it ever was under DOS, the obstacle to Linux editors having the same basic features as DOS editors has been removed. Now anyone who knows C++ can do something great. To produce the editor and widget library I have described might change the course of the history of free software, by rolling out a red carpet to entry-level programmers.

Invent the Wheel

I am constantly being told that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. A ship could sail the Atlantic, powered only by my sighs. Let me assure you, I will march up and down the High Street blowing a trumpet and proclaiming at the top of my voice, "NO NEED TO REINVENT THE WHEEL!" on the day that someone actually produces a ROUND WHEEL.

In theory, any Open Source editor can be hacked and made perfect, but we are still waiting for a mouse-aware console editor which can be hacked and improved by programmers with I.Q.s under 170. Without adequate documentation, Open Source is a Closed Book to ordinary mortals.


What are you, C++ programmer? Someone with the power to build abstract machines, an inventor that has transcended the limitations of the material world that crushed the dreams of human inventors of every generation before this? The citizens of the beautiful city of Free Software scrape along on square wheels and you could solve their problem.

If you are sitting on your flabby backside thinking, "Nyaahh. It's not for me", then who is it for? Not me, I'm homeless. I have had access to a computer long enough to write the interface library, but now I am living in a tent and the closest I get to a computer is occasional internet access at a day centre for the unemployed. That is why it can't be me. Why can't it be you?

It might be your destiny to be the author of that Ultimate Editor, the last editor ever written. Perhaps no more than a month after the importance of free software has been recognised and Stallman's face is carved on Mount Rushmore, they may have to blow it off with dynamite and carve yours on there instead.


Slang, by John E. Davis. Slang appears to have eclipsed curses, as the keyboard/mouse/colour text interface library most programmers would recommend. If you are dead clever, you might find a way to use the subset of Slang purely concerned with the console interface, which is part of the Midnight Commander source. It is smaller and allows text selection at the Linux console, while still offering limited functionality on less capable terminals, even telnet windows!

CTIO, by Stephen Bint. By far the simplest and best console interface library I have ever written. Only works at the Linux console and DOS, not in rxvt/xterm nor telnet windows (but it's only 42k). Read about my struggle to write it here.

emacs, by Richard Stallman. A millstone in the history of free software.


[BIO] Stephen is a homeless Englishman who lives in a tent in the woods. He eats out of bins and smokes cigarette butts he finds on the road. Though he once worked for a short time as a C programmer, he prefers to describe himself as a "keen amateur".

Copyright © 2003, Stephen Bint. Copying license http://www.linuxgazette.net/copying.html
Published in Issue 87 of Linux Gazette, February 2003

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