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Battlefronts, Part 1

For some inscrutable reason, nerds, especially of the FOSS persuasion love to split themselves up and fight to the death, usually over meaningless issues. The best example I can think of to illustrate this is the “debate” of Emacs versus Vi.

They are both ostensibly “text editors” and therefore comparable, which has caused much in-fighting and internet flaming. (As an aside, every single person I’ve met face-to-face who’s expressed a view on the topic sides with Vi.) The problem here is that it’s like comparing apples and The Big Apple. While you can type text into both Vi and Emacs, and then save it as a file, with Emacs, you could then take that file, upload it to your FTP server, send out an email telling your friends about it, post about it on a forum, chat with your buddies about it on IRC, crunch some numbers about it with a calculator, and then blow off some steam with a game of Tetris. All without leaving the Emacs window.

Vi, alternatively, doesn’t even support a mouse. You can move around with the arrow keys, once you get started typing something, but forget about clicking and dragging. (That brings me to one thing that does connect Vi and Emacs: to the regular Ivan coming from Notepad/Word, the learning curve on both Vi and Emacs are nearly vertical.) The usefulness of this limitation on Vi is that, because it runs entirely in a console window, it can be run while remotely logged into another computer. (This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that it is possible to force any windows of Emacs opened by your remote session to open on your local machine, but it requires a bit of SSH voodoo.)

As I see it, Emacs is, in essence a virtual machine which adds a layer between applications written to run in Emacs and the operating system. Because the same version of one application, such as a web browser, will run in any version of Emacs, it sort of serves the purpose of Java, except that Java is useful. Emacs is trying to be an operating system inside an operating system, and that’s just not all that helpful.

On the other hand, Vi just edits text. And its got enough power that I have a coffee mug whose entire outer surface is covered in little tricks, printed rather small, on how to do neat stuff with a few keystrokes. But what it really comes down to is that the “war” between Vi and Emacs is over. Vi has won. When every version of Linux comes with your text editor (in this case, Vi Improved), it’s game over.

This is a debate that I closely correlate in my mind to the QWERTY versus DVORAK keyboard-layout debate, which is likewise a settled conflict. It won’t go away, there are zealots who are more productive with the non-standard item, and 99% of the public doesn’t care enough to understand why they should switch to the side of the wild-eyed guy who’ll tell you that it’ll make you 300% better at computing.

Author’s Note: The above was originally intended to be an introduction to a post on the fanboy wars over KDE and Gnome. But writing about Emacs is just so hilarious, I couldn’t help turning it into a full post. Check back Friday for more about the desktop environment war, which is still very much alive and kicking.

Categories: The Internet
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  1. November 9, 2007 at 6:04 am
  2. January 9, 2008 at 7:02 am
  3. June 9, 2008 at 2:30 am

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