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A short history of Text Editors

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Text editors have been the subject of countless debates and endless flamewars. However few people know much about how they came to be and the little anecdotes associated with them. I've purposely left out Vi, Emacs and their clones because their history is very well documented and known by quite a few.

One of the earliest known implementations of a visual screen text editor is Vedit and it has survived to this day. It was started in 1980 and is still available for purchase, though the updates are slow to come by. However, this does not mean that it is not a top-notch editor by any standards. It was initially introduced on the CP/M operating system but is mostly developed for Windows now. Ted Green was the original creator of Vedit and has put up a very interesting page describing the history and anecdotes during the first two decades of this awesome editor. Definitely worth a look if you are interested in old computer software adverts.

The editor by itself is on version 6.15 which does look surprising when you look at the fact that Vedit is now 30 years old. However this can be put in prespective if you notice that version 6.0 is now 8 years old. Apparently the company increments the version numbers by very tiny amounts. The features are fantastic though, it even has a fully capable C-like macro language but the whole package is still under 2 MB. And its default font looks awesomely old-skool.

Around the same time frame XEDIT was a very popular text editor on the VM/CMS platform. A clone of the original XEDIT, called KEDIT introduced in 1983, survives to this day though further development of it was stopped somewhere around 2007. Like XEDIT, KEDIT uses Rexx as a macro language for editing. In August 1984, the Epsilon editor made its debut. It resembles Emacs closely but uses a C-like macro language rather than ELisp. In 1987, a Unix version of Epsilon was released and around 1996 the Windows port made its debut with Epsilon version 8.0.

In November 1985, Sammy Mitchell wrote Qedit in Turbo Pascal. It quickly became a popular DOS text editor and was also ported to OS/2. Around 1990 Qedit was rewritten using Borland's Turbo C. In 1993, Sammy wrote a new text editor based on Qedit called The Semware Editor or TSE Pro for short. Its macro language 'SAL' resembled Pascal and is surprisingly full featured including a preprocessor. TSE continues as a Windows product today with the latest version being 4.4 released in 2005. The application looks retro and feels like a console based UI but it actually is a native Win32 graphical application.

1988 saw the introduction of Slickedit (then called Slick), and it has grown into a full featured multi-language IDE by now. It has always been a favorite of C/C++ developers but works extremely well as an IDE for many languages. The product was renamed Visual Slickedit somewhere in the early-mid 1990's and finally to Slickedit in 2005 with version 10.0. Clark Maurer, the founder of Slickedit, remains with the company to this day as its President and CEO. He built the 'E' editor while working at IBM around 1984 and founded MicroEdge in 1988 which would eventually be renamed to Slickedit Inc. in 2001.

Joe's Own Editor or Joe for short is a console based text editor written by Joseph Allen in the late 1980's. The distinguishing feature of the Joe editor was that its keybindings were similar to that of WordStar, a popular word procesing software from the early 80's. It's still going strong to this day and is a common editor chosen by sysadmins who do not use either Vi or Pico like editors. In 1991, Mark Edel from Fermilab started NEdit which was one of the first X Windows based text editors to be widely available. Based on the Motif toolkit and having CUA (Windows-like) keybindings, its development gradually grinded to a halt around 2006. However, its a very mature piece of software with a number of features and is still used heavily by people who want to use the powerful features of Vim or Emacs without going through their steep learning curve.

With the 90's, the Windows platform rose to prominence and so did text editors which supported it. Among the early ones was Textpad by Helios Software Solutions first introduced in 1992. After a few years, Textpad spread like wildfire after being recommended by almost all the Java literature available at that time as a good editor to start Java coding with. My best guess for this is because it came with a pre-configured setting to support Java compilation using its external tool settings.

UltraEdit from IDM Computer Solutions is another popular Windows text editor from early 1994. The company name, IDM, is actually an acronym for its founder's name, Ian D. Mead. They have a full story about their humble beginnings written up on their website here. The editor itself has evolved from a simple programmer's editor to a lightweight IDE and the version number is now at 15. The company also makes a separate product billed as an IDE which has more features than UltraEdit called UEStudio, however UltraEdit remains their flagship software.

The race between Window's programmer's editor in the late 90's and early 2000's remained largely a three horse race between TextPad, UltraEdit and EditPlus. Developed by Sangil Kim in C++, Editplus soon gained a dedicated userbase after its initial launch in 1998. While a Window's only editor, it rose to prominence being a featureful HTML editor by itself and a steady growth of useful features. Sangil still maintains the editor, now in its 13th year, and it remains a easy-to-use editor with low resource usage requirements.

If I've missed your favorite or an important editor, feel free to let me know in the comments.

4 Comments On This Entry

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16 June 2010 - 09:07 PM
A few other notable mentions on the OS X platform were TextMate and SubEthaEdit (which is known for collaborative document editing). Also, Notepad++ is among the top editors today.


17 June 2010 - 11:18 AM
One thing that really baffles me: How do people manage to make money selling text editors for 299$/license when there are MANY FOSS editors with the same (if not more) features? I mean everyone at work just "loves" TextPad but I have never understood why since there are better editors one can get for free (and then decide how much it is worth to you).

Which brings up a good point -- your coverage is woefully lacking the FOSS editors. Windows: Programmer's Notepad, Notepad++, jEdit, vim - no outrageous price tag, all excellent editors.


17 June 2010 - 11:30 PM
I've tried to keep the timeline starting from 1980 to about 2000. Most of the popular FOSS editors like PN and N++ and non-FOSS ones like Textmate came after this time period which is one reason I left them out, though in all fairness I should've mentioned JEdit since it started in 1998 right around the time Editplus came out.

Though I do tend to agree on the fact them some editors are outrageously priced. Vim/Emacs pretty much beat most of the shareware editors out there. However I think the reason these editors still exist is either the comfort level or fondness of a particular editor or a stunning feature found only in them. Slickedit for example is one of the very few editors that can parse a Perl file and list down variables as a tag in a project whereas ctags and etags only list subroutines and packages.

Textpad mostly wins on recommendation by various Java books and tutorials. KEDIT on the other hand is simply the best XEDIT clone out there for people who got used to it working in the late 70's. Also some of these had a pretty sophisticated macro language and people who had invested time learning those (REXX for KEDIT, Slick-C for Slickedit) do not want to switch to other editors since it would mean either giving up on their snippet collection or converting them to Elisp or VimScript or another macro language.


21 June 2010 - 01:42 PM
This sort of history is always interesting. I found myself wasting another half an hour after finishing this post on wikipedia reading more :)
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