Why Emacs will NEVER be popular!

Hello crafters, just sharing my blog post Why Emacs will NEVER be popular. Input appreciated!

Well, I was expecting more than a few paragraphs. It doesn’t seem to answer the question in the title.

What even is popularity? More than 50% market share? That’s not going to happen, but it doesn’t need to. That would be like expecting 50% of the world to become rocket scientists, or classical pianists, or microbiologists, or bird watchers, or builders of ships in bottles, or any other discipline that appeals to people with certain interests. Most people aren’t interested in programming computers and customizing their computing environments to such an extent (that early Emacs users were legendarily non-programmers, notwithstanding). And that’s okay.

I think it’s really about certain kinds of personalities. As you know, Emacs appeals to people with a wide variety of occupations–not just software developers–but even among software developers, its appeal is not that wide. I think its appeal is mainly to people with a certain mix of creativity and, shall we say, control-freak (myself not excluded). Most people just aren’t like that (thankfully, or how would we all get along).

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Vanilla Emacs isn’t newbie-friendly like modern apps, and popularizing it means debunking myths and promoting its unique power. It needs demystification and recognition of its philosophy. Just like newbie Linux distros, Emacs distributions can play a key role to show off its strengths.

Popularity doesn’t mean high market share, but recognition of what it is & the philosophy behind it. Nobody really understands or knows what Emacs is outside of the Emacs community.

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I have told the story of why I decided to switch to Emacs so many times I wrote it into a blog post. Popularity had nothing to do with it. The most relevant passage is this:

I had tried learning Emacs on multiple occasions as a graduate student, and was always frustrated with the user experience. It wasn’t intuitive how to navigate the user manual, and there were seemingly better options available: vim and tmux are a powerful combination, and have very good manual pages.

I eventually made a decision to learn Emacs because I knew that it follows the principles of functional programming better than ordinary shell scripting. In functional programming you have two key ingredients: functions, and a means to compose functions together to build larger functions that solve a particular problem. Without using Emacs, your functions are the Linux CLI tools, and you can compose these tools with shell pipes to solve problems. But Emacs provides better ways of composing CLI tools because it is programmed in Lisp, which is a functional programming language. Emacs also provides a better framework for constructing views over your data than something like Ncurses and the ANSI terminal protocol. Once I had made this realization, it was obvious to me why Emacs was the best toolkit to use in my day-to-day work, and I consciously put in the effort to overcome frustration and finally learn Emacs as a skill.

Emacs exists for anyone who comes to this realization that I did. Why create directories full of Bash or Zsh shell scripts? Why use things like Fish shell, Fuzzy Find, or file managers like Ranger, or web browsers like Lynx, or terminal multiplexers like Screen or Tmux, or any command line tools that draw pretty text widgets to the screen? Why do all of these tools need to be compiled into their own executables and each scriptable in its own programming language? It is crazy to have to learn Lua, Python, VimScript, or whatever else, and also configuration with TOML or JSON or what-have-you, for each individual tool, and then try to compose these tools together with Bash!

It just makes sense if each of these individuals tools can all be written in, and composed together, all using the same programming language like Lisp, and all of these tools used from within in a fully integrated interactive programming environment. This is such a simple, powerful, elegant concept, and this is why Emacs continues to find users after over 45 years since it was first released.

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Ramin Honary via System Crafters notifications@systemcrafters.discoursemail.com writes:

  • ramin_hal9001
    March 11

[…]

Emacs exists for anyone who comes to this realization that I did. Why create directories full of Bash or Zsh shell scripts? Why use things like
Fish shell, Fuzzy Find, or file managers like Ranger, or web browsers like Lynx, or terminal multiplexers like Screen or Tmux, or any
command line tools that draw pretty text widgets to the screen? Why do all of these tools need to be compiled into their own executables and
each scriptable in its own programming language? It is crazy to have to learn Lua, Python, VimScript, or whatever else, and also configuration
with TOML or JSON or what-have-you, for each individual tool, and then try to compose these tools together with Bash!

Thanks for sharing your post! I completely agree with your points.

What I wanted to emphasize is that to increase the “popularity” of
Emacs, what’s needed is an ecosystem of Emacs distributions that can be
a starting point, not to change what Emacs is. You won’t find many
introductory books to lisp programming that recommend using Emacs
because it’s intimidating to start with, but an Emacs distribution could
solve this.

Opinions about Emacs distributions can vary within the community, I
believe they can be quite beneficial in making Emacs more accessible and
user-friendly.

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That’s a good question, and difficult to answer. It reminded me of my “personalized” survey results from JetBrains’ “state of developer ecosystem '23”, where Emacs is ranked twice as popular an IDE as Qt Creator, on par with both Atom and NetBeans:

Screenshot 2024-03-11 at 19.25.41

(Let’s not get caught up in how vim got 18% and VS Code 63%…)

On the other hand, I dare say most users of other editors are happy to jump onto the next big thing (at least 63%… :smiley: ), while I believe the Emacs users are mostly quite happy about using Emacs and don’t see a need for anything else. That’s quite a different kind of popularity, and to me more meaningful.

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In discussions about the popularity of Emacs there are two things I question:

  1. Why does popularity matter?
  2. If Emacs were to become popular, would the outcome be desirable?

Emacs has a vibrant and active community that engages its entire member base. Furthermore, new mediums for outreach (such as Systemcrafters) are attracting newer, younger members, so it’s a base that is replenishing. What is the appeal to moving beyond that?

Ease-of-use oriented distros could be double-edged. If we have a distro that’s intuitive and easy to use for the causal notepad/word processor user, that’s almost certain to widen the appeal of Emacs, and consequently increase its user-base. On the other hand, these people are going to be coming to Emacs for very different reasons than current Emacs users. Even if at first the new crowd is limited to a distro, if they influence the popularity of Emacs to the degree that it’s noticeable I don’t see how it won’t eventually influence the main editor itself. Outreach, concerted inclusion, and continued appeal to these folks will likely change the future trajectory that the editor takes. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The things I like about Emacs are all distinctive from the alternatives out there, but I’m not sure those things would matter as much to the new crowd. After all, that’s not why they’re here.

I do think distros have their place. Doom and Spacemacs (and Rational? Haven’t tried it in a while) strike a happy medium – they make it appealing to folks who want to give it a go, but they don’t change it to such a degree that those folks who try it and stick around have an alien perspective on what Emacs should be.

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