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What you could steal from the Kakoune code editor right now, and get away with it

Kakoune is a (fairly) young modal code editor that has matured for as long and as well as a good red wine. It places multiple-selections, operability and interactivity at the heart of its distinctive characteristics. It provides users with an efficient and comfortable text editing experience — but that’s not what this article is about.

Now 8 years old at the time of writing, Kakoune has gone through several iterations that removed a dependency here, optimised a core feature there, even factorised entire parts of its codebase! And as any long-term user will tell you, it’s easy to take all that good stuff for granted.

So here it is. I’m stopping time for a couple minutes, and listing in this article a few things that the Kakoune project does well in several dimensions. Some are technical, but the rest should hopefully be easily adaptable to other projects (whether they are code editors or not), and generic enough to be adopted seamlessly.

Now why does the title of this piece mention stealing? Read on, that’s item number one.

From its licensing model

If something doesn’t belong to anybody, is it stealing if you take it for yourself? What if it belongs equally to everybody?

Fortunately we don’t need to solve that problem: Kakoune is a public domain project. Which means that anyone is free to do anything they want with the source code of the editor, no questions asked.

This has several advantages:

Users don’t like paying for tools, and when they are free and open-source, I’d argue that they turn out to be more useful (with several iterations, over time) in the end if they place no limits on what users are allowed to do with the code.

I’m not in favour of abolishing licenses, I think it would be more productive for everyone if specialised tools were in the public domain. In fact, the Kakoune project is licensed, under the terms of the UNLICENSE, in order to avoid conflicts with jurisdictions that don’t recognise the public domain model.

As for the small riddle above, that’s a tough one, bordering on the philosophical, but since we’re talking about replicating data, we can easily break out of that paradox: copying is not stealing.

From its code

New comers like to praise Kakoune for having a clean codebase, easy to navigate and modify. And for good reason! Written in C++, the code uses the smallest amount of bells and whistles possible to keep the code elegant, compilable with (reasonably) old compiler versions, but more importantly convenient.

And when it comes to convenience, Kakoune has some interesting assets your project could benefit from:

The above snippets are not exactly drop-in, as they are still coupled to custom types defined for the editor, but should nonetheless be adaptable without much difficulty to other C++ projects.

From its user interface

Originally an easter-egg that savvy users found out about by reading the code that handles the terminal client’s user interface, the Clippy character has become a mascot that is now enabled out of the box. However, although it’s undeniable that nostalgia for Microsoft Office’s assistant has fuelled prolonged interest in Clippy itself, the easter egg’s notoriety has cast a shadow on the larger feature it’s a prisoner of: the auto-info pop up window.

The auto-info window is a big contributor to the general level of interactivity the editor provide, as it pops up any time the user hits a key in normal mode or has typed a function name in the command prompt. Its purpose is to provide instant feedback to the user, communicate usage information or possible options that are available to the user. Every time I’m using a terminal program that lets me type commands but never hints at what parameters they take, I sorely wished more people would steal that from Kakoune!

Another command prompt related improvement that the editor proposes is fuzzy matching: the user doesn’t need to type out letters that make up the name of the command they need in order, which makes for much faster completion selection, and increased discoverability.

All command names in Kakoune are WORDS that start with the name of the functionality group they belong to. The examples below follow:

Use Kakoune once, and you’ll wish your browser enabled fuzzy matching in your history/bookmarks for the rest of your days. But you might wonder: there are individual tools that handles fuzzy-matching, like fzf, ctrlp or fzy, what if the user would rather use them to handle opening, for example, files? Great question! Read on, that’s the next dimension I want you to steal from.

From its philosophy

The UNIX philosophy states that tools should focus on doing one thing, and do it well. The implications are that tools that implement too many unrelated features end up providing users with an underwhelming experience because they only allow so much granularity over their behaviour, and that their maintainers are spread too thin to improve/fix them.

If we re-frame this into the context of text editing, editors should only worry about exactly that — text editing. And Kakoune does its job as a UNIX citizen brilliantly, but it also goes one step further: it allows other tools to interact with it, via shell scripting.

Remember the case of spawning a third-party fuzzy matching program, above? Without getting into details, in Kakoune you’d implement that by spawning a new terminal (or pane/tab), which would run the program, and its output would be interpreted by the editor. Users are free to run any program they want, any terminal or multiplexer they prefer.

And the concept isn’t bound to terminal programs either, although they are probably the type of tools that Kakoune users would intuitively want to interact with, on account of the editor being one itself. For example, do you want to edit a file using a graphical interface? Try the following:

:edit %sh{zenity --file-selection}

If that doesn’t sound anything special, it means that it makes sense. Unfortunately, the field of text editors on UNIX systems has over the years turned into an archipelago, in which every editor aims at being an island. Job management, shell, terminal emulation, window multiplexing… Text editors have turned into closed ecosystems (or Integrated Development Environments) that provide many (sometimes cardboard-looking) features unrelated to editing, which new comers have to buy into, or be left out in the cold.

So here’s an idea everybody should not feel guilty about stealing, if applicable to their projects: don’t re-invent the wheel, we have enough bad imitations already1 — instead, work on ways to make your tools interface with others more easily!

If you have comments or questions, feel free to drop by the official IRC channel: #kakoune @ FreeNode.


— written by Frank Lenormand · · license CC BY-SA 4.0