Mac classics: Why BBEdit rules

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Let me run through a list of things that I’ve recently used BBEdit (4.5-mouse rating) for.

1. I’m continuing to develop my website. But I’m kind of a dope, meaning that every working scrap of CSS and PHP that I write is the result of trial and error. So I use BBEdit as my code editor: It lets me edit my site’s files directly on the server; it previews everything in place; and when I’m about to move on to the next line without fixing an unbalanced bracket, the app gently coughs and points, rather than making me feel like an idiot.

This use makes perfect sense because code editing is BBEdit’s most famous function. In offices where people in Dr. Who/Firefly mashup tee shirts slave all day keeping servers and apps running, “Bare Bones Software” is uttered with the same reverence as “Industrial Light and Magic” or “WETA Digital.”

Screenshot courtesy of
BBEdit was built for coding, but it's good for a lot more than that.

2. People I don’t know send me documents all the time. Often, these documents promise that they contain very interesting information. But they could in fact contain an embedded Trojan horse.

No sweat: I just drag the document into BBEdit, whose currency is solely text files. BBEdit doesn't try to make sense of the data inside a file; it just dumps the content into a window.

3. At one point, I had more than 1000 subscriptions in Google Reader. It was time to weed out years of dead links and sites that had outlived their usefulness. But Google’s subscription manager stinks at handling large jobs like this one.

So I exported my subscriptions to an OPML file, opened that file with BBEdit, eyeballed all of the XML-encoded data, deleted the stuff I no longer wanted, resaved the file, and then imported it back into Reader.

4. Slowly but surely, I’m rehabbing ten years’ worth of newspaper columns I’ve written. My word processor of choice for most of those ten years? BBEdit. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words with it.

BBEdit 5.0 in 1998.

Before you ask: Yes, I had heard of Microsoft Word in 2000. It just wasn’t the right text editor for the job. Word is an antique in many ways. Who thinks in terms of “pages” any more? Word processors force you to pay some attention to the container instead of focusing entirely the content. I don’t care about margins and formatting.

Here's an example: When I cut a tricky-to-spell name from a website and paste it into the column I’m writing in BBEdit, I see a name. But when I do it with a conventional word processor, I also see orange 22-point Futura with an underscore, embedded as a hyperlink. Yes, thank you, Pages, you moron, that was indeed exactly the effect I was going for.

When I finish writing these 1400 or so words, I’ll hand them off to an editor who will then be able to send them seamlessly through the other steps in the publishing process, without a lot of formatting getting in the way.

I admit that, in my weaker moments, I sometimes wish that BBEdit could show me boldfaced and italicized text. I have suggested the same to Bare Bones Software on many occasions. In response I get a smile and an acknowledgement that this could be a useful idea—but I also see a light behind that person’s eyes shifting from steady green to blinking amber and then back to steady green. They compared this suggestion to their simple, consistent definition of what BBEdit Is, and didn’t find a match.

I see their point.

BBedit stays out of my way by relying on the one truly foolproof file format: plain text. I could send files created in BBEdit straight to my editor and know beyond any doubt that he or she could drag it straight into any damn app that happens to be on hand. Further, I know that in five, or ten, or even fifty years’ time, I’ll still have no problem opening these files in whatever app on whatever computer running whatever operating system I cotton to.

Which takes me back to my story about rehabbing my old newspaper columns. Because BBEdit doesn’t do boldface or italics, and because HTML confused the Chicago Sun-Times’ early content-management system, I used underscores to indicate simple formatting. I now want to change the underscores to true HTML tags, in hundreds of separate columns. It’s another job for BBEdit—specifically, for its multifile, GREP-based search-and-replace feature. It takes me a few tries to define the regular expression correctly. But once I do, I can point BBEdit at the correct folder, and the task is done.

Searching and replacing text with GREP is one of BBEdit's key skills.

5. I recently had a 2:30 phone briefing with a company that’s about to release a fairly cool piece of software. It was an hour-long demo of the product in which the presenters hurled lots of facts and data at me, and I hurled lots of stupid questions back, and they returned fire with more facts and more data.

BBEdit is the only word processor I trust under intense battlefield conditions of this kind. It’s built on performance. I know that what I type will wind up in the window. Even if I have 30 apps and 99 browser windows open on a Mac with just 640 kilobytes of free space available for memory swapping, and I’m furiously typing at speeds exceeding 110 words per minute, I can look at the screen and see words briskly marching across it. I will not see a spinning beachball cursor and be left to wonder how many of my notes I’m going to lose before the app decides that it wants to be a word processor again.

There are a few more items on my list of things I’ve recently used BBEdit for, actually, but you get the point. BBEdit was designed as a text-based editor optimized for writing code, and it’s fab for that purpose. But remarkably, even after twenty years, BBEdit is still highly relevant to the way most people—not just coders—use their Macs.

A beautiful friendship

Revolutions in technology come in waves only a few years apart. That BBEdit is still an essential tool more than two decades after its initial release is remarkable. BBEdit’s relevance is due in part to the company’s focus on its users' current needs, and in part to its attention to larger trends.

When users wanted the power to extend the editor themselves, Bare Bones introduced a plug-in system. When HTML started to take off, and developers started writing terrific plug-ins for producing webpages, Bare Bones bought them and started shipping them with the product; then it began incorporating HTML support directly into the app. Dropbox? Sure, that makes sense; BBEdit locates your sync folder automatically.

The original announcement of BBEdit in 1992.

But the real reason for BBEdit’s endurance is that it has the one crucial characteristic shared by every truly great creative work: It has a purpose beyond the way it articulates its immediate function. Casablanca is a black-and-white movie displayed in the wrong aspect ratio with mono sound, starring people who are long dead and who are portraying characters under threat from a war that ended nearly 70 years ago.

And yet it still feels relevant. At its core, the story is about human relationships, sacrifice, and understanding. The sets and the dialogue are just ways of expressing that simple core. It’s about something universal and permanent.

Great apps are no different. They’re great because they’re about something. Every decision that Bare Bones Software has made about BBEdit since 1991 has been informed by that singled-mindedness, which is why it remains an important tool for any task that involves pressing buttons labeled with letters and numbers.

“BBEdit’s still important because at its essential core, it’s a tool for working with text,” says Rich Siegel, Bare Bones Software’s founder and CEO. “Not text for presentation, as in a word processor or page-layout application, but rather text as data supplied to other software: code for compilers and interpreters, markup and Web applications for Web browsers, log files and data tables for analysis, and for any tool that inhales raw text and turns it into something else.”

“The human genome only requires four letters of the alphabet,” he adds a bit cryptically. “BBEdit’s proven to be quite a handy tool for working on that, too.”

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