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Time To End The vi/Emacs Debate

If you still use Emacs, I feel for you. Perhaps it is time to give vi a try.

There has been a long-standing debate among programmers. It is as fierce as the Hatfields/McCoys, Jets/Sharks, and Michigan/Ohio State feuds. Programmers continue to argue over the best text editor: vi or Emacs. For the past 42 years, programmers have dug in on either side, with practically no hope of switching. I must disclose that I have been using vi since 1987. I still remember my classmates arbitrarily picking vi or Emacs. I tried emacs back then and did not like it. Maybe I did not give it a fair chance? Well it is too late now. I am in the vi camp for life.

Now the developers have spoken. Today, Stack Overflow released its 2018 Developer Survey Results. Vim, the improved version of vi, scored 25.8% in popularity, while Emacs scored a paltry 4.1%. That is a staggering difference. To further gauge popularity, I counted 22,582 questions tagged with vim and 15,667 questions tagged with Emacs on Stack Overflow. You could argue that fewer questions means higher usability. I interpret this as an indication of activity.

I know the Atom and Sublime Text editors are all the rage today. But what made vi appealing to me 30 years ago still holds true today. I really like the short, simple commands. I rarely need to take my hand off the keyboard. To delete a character, type ‘x’. To insert a character, type ‘i’. If you still type Ctrl+x, Ctrl+s to save a file, I do not think we can be friends. I like how my brain has been hardwired to vi. I probably cannot describe most of the vi commands to you, because using vi is like breathing: you just do it. MIT and Stanford each have nice little vi reference cards that fit on a single page. The GNU Emacs reference card is twice as long. Invoking the emacs editor requires three additional letters; those extra keystrokes add up over time. Finally, vi is a cool name. I have a cousin who goes by Vi. Have you ever met anyone named Emacs?

If you still use Emacs, I feel for you. Perhaps it is time to give vi a try. I consider myself lucky for picking vi from the start. You can try to convince me to use Emacs, but you will have an easier time convincing me to go back to Visual Basic.

Edwin Torres is a full-time software engineer at The MITRE Corporation and an adjunct professor of computer science at Monmouth University. Follow Edwin on Twitter @realEdwinTorres.


Brent Auernheimer

I use emacs versus vi as an example of modes (or not) in interfaces. I am a vi person from way back (1978) because I don't have a problem with keeping track of what mode I am in, compared to remembering which multi-key chord I need to remember to do just about anything useful in emacs :)

I have my students read this from 2001:

Edwin Torres

Brent- Thanks for the comment. That's a good PDF guide. I remember using emacs back then to edit multiple files in the same window. Of course you can do that in vi as well. I'm glad you're teaching your students emacs. It's nice to have a classic editor in a classroom environment.

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