Mac text editor BBEdit celebrates 20th anniversary

Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of the venerable Mac text-editing app BBEdit. I’m sure there are other apps not published by a gigantic company that have managed to last as long, but I’m not sure that any app has changed with the times and remained as relevant as BBEdit. As someone who has written hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of words in Bare Bones Software’s flagship product, let me take this opportunity to praise and reminisce.

In the olden days…

BBEdit 5.0, from 1998.
BBEdit began with a post on the Usenet newsgroup comp.sys.mac.announce by Rich Siegel, who 20 years later is still the lead developer on the product. The post, dated 2:19 a.m. on Sunday, April 12, 1992, heralds the arrival of a free text editor:

This is the first public release of BBEdit, which is a free text editor that has been under development and extensive in-house testing for the past two years. BBEdit is 32-bit clean, compatible with any Macintosh running system version 6.0 or later, and when running under System 7.0, takes specific advantage of new features to enhance performance and appearance.

BBEdit is also very economical with respect to disk and memory usage; it will run in a partition as small as 256K. The size of any file is only limited by the amount of memory available in BBEdit’s partition; there is no 32K upper bound.

BBEdit offers fast and flexible multi-file search and replace capabilities; under System 7, it can also use On Location 2.0 as a searching engine. Grep pattern-matching is available for single- or multi-file searches.

I realize that many Macworld readers were not around 20 years ago, so as someone who was a college student back then who had only recently discovered and embraced the Mac, let me translate. BBEdit used special features of System 7, which for my money was the first major Mac transition—a modern-day Mac user might find System 7 odd, but it would be far more familiar than its predecessor, System 6.0.8.

And while it’s impressive that BBEdit originally used only 256K of memory, more relevant is the line “there is no 32K upper bound.” Back then, most Mac text editors used a systemwide text-editing resource that couldn’t handle more than 32K of text. BBEdit being able to edit more than 32K of text was a big deal. (It’s funny now, but back then the 32K text limit was a huge deal. TidBits, the venerable Mac newsletter, set a hard limit on the size of its issues so that it wouldn’t go over the 32K limit and become unreadable. Only in the last few years has TidBits finally shaken off the post-traumatic stress enough to embrace longer issues.)

But what strikes me most about this announcement is that the first public edition of BBEdit already offers two of its most important features—multi-file search and replace and support for Grep pattern-matching. If you don’t know what Grep is, suffice it to say that it’s the single biggest productivity booster I have experienced in my entire computer-using life. In 1997 I bought a book just to teach myself how to use Grep-style regular expressions, and it paid dividends. (These days, of course, you can buy a book just about BBEdit, including Grep tutorials I would’ve killed for back in the day.)

Although BBEdit was initially conceived of as a tool for programmers, it’s far more flexible than that. I’ve used BBEdit to build websites, edit PHP and JavaScript code, and write hundreds of articles.

I was introduced to BBEdit somewhere around 1995, while working at MacUser magazine. I can’t remember exactly when I stopped editing webpages using the text editor inside the Eudora email application, but I’m pretty sure it was my colleague Stephan Somogyi who got me into it. I remember being impressed that Stephan was listed in BBEdit’s About box, credited as one of two “princes of insufficient light.” (And if you look closely, you may see your own name in the About box too. Ah, quirky About boxes—another classic Mac feature that survives in BBEdit to this day.)

Still kicking

All of this would be an insane nostalgia trip were it not for this amazing fact: BBEdit’s still around. And not just as a relic of the old times, but as a modern, relevant text editor. Almost none of the other apps I used in 1997 are on my hard drive today. (I count two others: DragThing and Default Folder). BBEdit has grown and adapted over time, going from free to commercial, spawning a free “Lite” version that eventually became the free text editor TextWrangler. Now at version 10.1.1, BBEdit is sold in the Mac App Store for $50, much cheaper than it was during the early commercial era.

With every version, BBEdit gains new features that keep it relevant. In the meantime, older stuff gets ripped out regularly, keeping the app rich and complex but not overburdened with old junk. This is not to say that BBEdit doesn’t have competitors. In the old days it was Unix-based stuff like emacs; these days it’s TextMate and maybe Coda for Web stuff, and a host of cool new OS X writing tools such as Scrivener and iA Writer.

All of these tools have their advantages—in fact, I use Scrivener for longer, more complicated stories now. But while people can argue the merits of BBEdit versus these other apps, the point is that after 20 years, those arguments can still happen. As its sales in the Mac App Store can attest, BBEdit isn’t just fulfilling the needs of veterans like me—it’s actively gaining new users and competing with the young upstarts who form its competition.

So on the occasion of BBEdit’s 20th birthday, here’s a toast to the distinguished old gentleman text-editor. I’d raise a glass, but since BBEdit’s still a year shy of legal drinking age in most states, I’ll say only this: I wrote this article in BBEdit, and I’ll be writing the next one in BBEdit, too. Nostalgia is great, but this app doesn’t belong in a museum—it belongs in my Dock. That’s the biggest endorsement I can give.

[Jason Snell is the editorial director of Macworld.]

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