The end of the road for a favored text editor

While setting up my new OS X-powered Dell Mini 10v mini-laptop, I wanted to install my favorite text editor, the open source program Smultron. When the Smultron site loaded, I was greeted by the message you may have just seen for yourself:


First of all I’d like to thank you for your interest in my applications. But I have now come to a point where I don’t have the time to spend on the applications that they deserve so I have decided to not release any more versions for the foreseeable future.


Peter Borg

Needless to say, this was sad to read—I’ve been using Smultron for many years, and it’s never good news when something you enjoy using reaches its (apparent) end of life.

(In addition to Smultron, Peter Borg also wrote Lingon, a tool that makes it much easier to create launchd tasks, which (amongst other things) controls the launching of tasks on a schedule, much like cron does in other Unix systems.)

After downloading the latest version of Smultron (and stashing a copy of it somewhere safe, just in case the site vanished), I told a couple friends via iChat—and those following me on Twitter—about the demise of my favorite text editor. This led to several versions of “while it’s sad to see it go, there are lots of good alternatives. Why not just switch to XYZ?”

There are, indeed, a ton of great text editors for the Mac. BBedit and TextWrangler, TextMate, SubEthaEdit, skEdit…the list goes on and on. So why did I choose Smultron out of all of those? The answer is…that there’s not a good answer, at least not any logically good answer. So I spent some time thinking about what I need out of a text editor, and why it was that Smultron met those needs better than any of the other programs I’ve tried over the years.

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My text editing needs are relatively simple—I write mainly in HTML, so I need syntax highlighting and HTML tag completion (press a hot key to close the currently-open tag). I like to work on multiple files in one window with tabs, or in one window that’s been split horizontally and/or vertically (as opposed to using multiple separate windows).

I don’t need any complex project management tools, because my projects are typically just one text document paired with some number of images and/or movies. I do, however, work on multiple files at once, so some method of showing all open files is desired.

Finally, I do need spell check, line numbers, word count, and support for syntax highlighting in both CSS and PHP, as I occasionally edit those types of files.

Many years ago, I used jEdit, a Java-based text editor. It had an amazing collection of plug-ins that extended its power, and I found it easy to work with. However, it was the most un-Mac-like application I used, and the differences eventually got me looking elsewhere.

It was during that look that I stumbled onto Smultron. It met almost all of my requirements—its split-window behavior isn’t quite as flexible as I’d like—and had a clean, easy-to-understand interface. Smultron’s menus are simple, the interface can be customized to your liking, and it launches quickly. But all of this can be said for many of the other OS X text editors, many of which I tried out during my hunt for a jEdit replacement.

In many ways, selecting a text editor is like deciding which car to purchase. Generalizing somewhat, every car does the same thing, in pretty much the same way—a motor drives the wheels, and you use pedals and a wheel to control the car’s speed and direction. There are, of course, differences in features and performance between models, and in the end, it’s those details that help us decide on one car over another. Based on my specific needs, Smultron’s implementation of the details led it to become my text editor of choice.

Smultron just seems to work the way I work, and I never have to struggle to remember where a command is, or wonder why a certain command does something other than what I expect it to do. In short, Smultron is a perfect writing and coding partner, as it basically gets out of the way and lets me get the job done.

The good news, if there is any in Smultron’s demise, is that it works quite well in Leopard. I can only hope it works as well in Snow Leopard, as I intend to keep using it for as long as I can. If Smultron does break in Snow Leopard, though, I’ll be forced to find a replacement—and that won’t be a fun project. (Perhaps some aspiring developer will pick up the source to Smultron and Lingon, and decide to help the programs live on…one can dream, can’t they?)

If it does come down to a replacement plan, I’d love to know which pure text editors you prefer—perhaps there are a few I’ve missed that would meet all my requirements and could possibly take over for Smultron, if it comes to that.

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