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Emacs' GNU Look: A Sneak Preview of Emacs 21.0

The More Things Change....

  • December 18, 2000
  • By Michael Hall
It's easy to get used to constants in your life.

Take GNU Emacs.

In one form or another, Emacs has been with me for close to ten years: first as experienced over a VT100, then as a ghost of its keybindings with Borland's extensible Sprint word processor (one of the happier moments before the Word hegemony established itself), and then via Linux where it, well, it was Emacs again...not so different even when run under X than when I first started using it.

There are some things we take for granted with Emacs:

To users accustomed to the eyecandy of GNOME and KDE, Emacs is a hard sell. It has its own look and feel. The first time I used it under KDE and experienced that environment's habit of inflicting its color scheme on random apps I went into shock: it was truly a case of putting lipstick on a mule. Emacs is from a time before pretty toolkits...before "themeable" was a talking point for software. I learned how to make KDE stop trying to gussy things up and felt better immediately.

Because Emacs behaves in a unique manner on the X desktop, it takes a little getting used to. It's nice to have the menus there, and there are elements of the Emacs display that are adjustable with a mouse, but they don't look quite like anything else on your desktop. They don't scream out "click and drag on this thing here!"

I suspect there's also a generation of Linux users out there who will never go near Emacs because it looks a little forboding. Yes...it can run under X, providing multiple windows and point-and-click functionality, but it looks a little unhappy doing it. Having noted the disturbing frequency with which "looks cool" and "it's ugly" are used to settle arguments in the desktop wars, it's not hard to imagine that Emacs loses potential users on the basis of its strange looks.

Emacs also poses a daunting learning curve. People are often attracted by the incredible functionality offered, and frightened away by the fact that at least a little Lisp is going to come into play to take advantage of all the power under the hood. There's plenty of configuration code out there on the web, though, and it's easy enough to crib.

Once they do invest the time, Emacs becomes a place from which some will never return. Built in to this "text editor" is a news reader, a few mail clients, a calendar, appointment book, Tetris, an FTP client, a Telnet client, a web browser, and more. You can climb into an Emacs session and, depending on your temperment and willingness to embrace Lisp, never have to leave. Some find this profoundly disturbing, others find it comforting.

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