I want to start this post by stating I have nothing but respect, admiration, and love for the Emacs community. Emacs’ extensibility, community packages, and it’s choice to effectively be an editor built on a lisp VM is amazing, and anyone choosing Emacs as an editor is investing in something that can grow with your needs.
Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons to switch to Atom. I am saying goodbye to Emacs, and have started using Atom as my main text editor.
My History with Emacs
I learned about Emacs during my college years (roughly 2008), when I happened to attend a house party for a family friend. The friend was a software developer who retired many years ago, but upon learning of my interest in software, he began to regale me with story after story of how much he does in Emacs.
“I check my e-mail with Emacs.”
“I built a program that opens my garage door from Emacs.”
“I share the same editor across multiple computers using the remote Emacs client.”
In all honesty I wasn’t really impressed by the idea of a program that you use to literally do everything, but it seemed like a great kernel for a text editor. I was using vim at the time and what I always lamented at (which I know others would say it’s vim’s greatest strength) was the fact that it could only be used to modify text. When I write code, I do so much more than write the code itself. I wanted an environment that made executing additional tasks seamless:
- Interact with version control (git push / pull, commit, add)
- Code search
- Running command line scripts
- Running a REPL and unit tests
Thus I dove into Emacs. The built-in terminal emulator, the ability to build whole programs in a single .el file and load them up, adding significant functionality to the editor, meant a lot of my needs were met quickly, and without significant effort. This became even easier with the release of Emacs 24, which included a built-in library to retrieve and install third-party packages, reducing the need to copy and paste.
In 2015, Atom was released. An editor that was inspired by the flexibility of Emacs, but was built on HTML5 technologies. Using web technologies to build out massive native applications is not an advantage in every respect, but there are strong wins in some important areas.
A Powerful UI Framework
Large Pool of Experienced Developers
A large portion of software engineers are web developers, and thus work in web technologies. The ability to transfer even some of this expertise as one is extending their editor removes a large chunk of the learning curve.
Impressed, But Not Sold
Atom was conceptually the editor I always wanted: the power of Emacs, a flexible UI framework, and a core built on technologies that I knew well and could contribute to. If I was starting from scratch, I may have chosen Atom, even when it just came out of beta.
However, I wasn’t starting from scratch. There was years of expertise in elisp, finding the right packages, learning to use them, and familiarizing myself with keybindings and the Emacs way of doing things. It didn’t make sense to throw those out the window for a nascent editor.
The Catalyst: Atom IDE and Language Server Integration
Since Atom came out, there was another text editor that entered the scene: VSCode. Similar in design to Atom, VSCode took a more opinionated approach to how an editor should be organized, and what tools to use (in the vein of visual studio). The more open world of Atom wasn’t a first priority (for example, VSCode did not provide support for more than three text windows at a time until recently).
However, VSCode did directly lead to the creation of the language server protocol, which enables any text editor to take advantage of IDE-like features, as long as they build an interface to a JSON-RPC based API.
When Atom implemented it’s language client, it was impressive, and it made me want to try Atom. But making the switch would require me to port all of my existing tools to find equivalents, and most likely learn a new set of keybindings. I already had a lot of that in Emacs. However, there was a final factor that really made me switch.
Community Critical Mass
For almost any tool or program, you’ll find one that is better in almost every significant way, but yet has not taken off. As much as we’d like to believe software engineering is a purely merit-based field, the reality is it depends on socio-economic factors as much as every other discipline. Market and mind-share matters.
The most impressive part of the language server protocol is not that it was built, it’s who built it. Facebook was a major contributor, teaming up with Github to build a real IDE experience for Atom.
Facebook’s business practices aside, they have a giant and talented engineer base. With Facebook engineers supporting a plugin like the Atom IDE, there’s a strong chance that you will see that integration improved and supported for years to come. And Atom is also a blessed project from Github.
I love Emacs, but it’s primarily supported by a volunteer base, who have other fulltime jobs. It’s very difficult trying to get a group of developers to implement something like language server support, and maintain and contribute back for years to come.
And the active community is larger around Atom. As of October 2018, here’s the counts of packages on the major package repositories per editor:
Unfortunately, Emacs does not have the development community in the same way Atom and VSCode can. That’s a conversation worth diving into, but it doesn’t change the state of the world today.
Migrating to Atom
So, I migrated my Emacs setup to Atom. Since I was a relatively late adopter a majority of my desired features were already a part of the editor, or were available as an extension.
I don’t think it’s valuable to dive into exactly what my setup looks like, but if you’d like to learn more, you can check out an Atom plugin I’m working on:
I am not using Atom 100% of the time, and I haven’t opened Emacs in about a year. The migration process took a couple of weeks.
Today, I have a lot invested in Atom, and I like my experience. Language server integration was a missing pain point, and that ecosystem (along with Atom’s integrations with it) is getting better every day.
The biggest lost I faced with Atom was performance: due to its reliance on a browser-based renderer, performance suffers vs draw calls in a native GUI. There are also improvements that can be made to Atom to ensure more non-blocking UI actions.
The Atom team has been working on xray, a text editor designed for performance whose improvements will be incorporated into the editor.
VSCode has also been a lot better on the performance front than Atom (still orders of magnitude slower than native editors). I tried it out recently and found the performance gain for me has been imperceptible, so it’s probably not worth the effort to lose the extension and keybinding knowledge.