GitHub Open Sources Atom, The Text Editor Beginners Can Use

GitHub’s fledgling text editor is going open source. 

Atom is a hackable text editor for developers, designed to compete with the likes of Vim and Emacs. But unlike the latter two, Atom was only partially open source when released in February, a caveat that irked the community, to some degree. 

See also: GitHub’s New Atom Text Editor Is Open Source, Sort Of, Though Not Really

Chris Kelly, GitHub’s developer relations lead, said community feedback did play a role in bringing Atom to open source. 

“When we first released in private beta, we wanted to get feedback from the community, but we still wanted to leave our options open,” Kelly said. “In the end, we decided that open source was the best way to help it thrive and grow.”

A Text Editor For Beginners

Even if you’re not a developer, you’ve probably used a text editor before. On Windows, there’s Notepad; on Mac there’s TextEdit. 

Developers will sometimes use these default apps as easy windows for writing code, but more often than not, they’ll use developer-specific text editors to shortcut common coding tasks. Sometimes, like with Vim, the text editor has a specific language (Vimscript) that you use to customize the editor and set up the shortcuts that work for you. 

Now anyone can download Atom as easily as they could any other text editor. The real question is whether they will, if they already have a preference.

Up And Atom

It’d be difficult to compete with something as popular and well-loved as Vim. Instead, it’s designed to snag beginners early and convince them to stick around. It contains a GUI (Graphical User Interface) as well as a command line option, for starters. 

For many, GitHub is increasingly used as an introduction to the development world. Ideally, according to Atom team developer Nathan Sobo, Atom could similarly be an introduction to text editing. 

“Since Vim and Emacs both have their own language, beginners have to learn to program and learn the interface at the same time,” Sobo said. “We wanted to make an intuitive tool, one that’s easy to pick up, but one that you don’t outgrow once you learn more and demand more from it.” 

Since most text editors are pretty old (Emacs dates to the ’70s), they sometimes don’t include the features users have grown accustomed to. For instance, Nano, my Linux editor of choice, doesn’t even respond to a mouse—just arrow keys. Atom is designed to be far more approachable, to say the least.

For example, even novice developers likely already know Atom’s native language: JavaScript. 

“Beginners are already learning to use JavaScript in the Web browser, and now we’re demonstrating to them how you can code a desktop application using the same language,” Kelly said. “It’s really exciting for a new developer to see the results right in front of them.”

Now that Atom is open source, it’s easy to see how it might appeal to beginners weighing the options between it and more complicated editors. And, as these amateur developers improve, they can also contribute to the Atom community. 

“Our goal with Atom is to keep it free and open source so the community can grow with it,” Kelly said. “It’s a complimentary product to the main mission of GitHub—to get people collaborating.”

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