Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Brief History Of Linux Text Editors

Years ago, text files were primarily used for system administration-related files, such as startup scripts and configuration files. But as computers evolved, people began using text files to write essays and term papers for school work. However, once the home computing market grew and word processors came onto the scene, those text files were once again relegated to system administration functions. It is in this environment that text editors such as the MS-DOS Editor and Windows Notepad were created.

Although text files are still used for system administration purposes, they’ve taken on a new purpose. Specifically, text files are used to create all sorts of tools, from desktop programs to sophisticated Web pages. To be sure, programmers creating desktop programs use programs that give a complete development environment, but the core of that environment has a specialized text editor that lets the user write the actual program. The code that is created to make those programs is just a text file. Sufficiently complicated programs and Web pages may use many different files, but the vast majority of them are text files.

There is a wide variety of text editors for Linux. Whether it’s editing a system file or managing a large-scale programming project, there’s a Linux text editor for you.

Default Text Editors
Notepad for Windows is the very definition of a basic text editor. You can edit one file at a time and view files with long lines wrapped or not. Find and Replace is its most powerful feature. This is fine if all you want to do is make little edits to a set of instructions, for example, or if you’re taking a quick note. But because text files are so widely used in the Linux world, its text editors necessarily have to be more powerful.

GNOME and KDE are two of the more popular desktop environments in the Linux community, and each includes its own text editor. GNOME has gedit, while KDE offers Kate; both editors share similar features. KDE actually has an older, less powerful text editor, called Kwrite, but its development has been folded into Kate. In fact, some Linux distributions bypass Kwrite altogether, instead just installing Kate.

Kwrite can best be described as a little bit more advanced than Notepad. Like Notepad, Kwrite only lets you edit one file at a time per window. (Of course, if you don’t mind the desktop clutter, you can launch multiple instances of Kwrite to edit multiple files, just like Notepad.) Where Notepad’s most advanced feature is Find and Replace, Kwrite also has a spell checker. So if all you need is a minimal text editor with spell check capability, Kwrite may be right up your alley. If you’re looking for more power, use Kate.

Generally speaking, you should use gedit and Kate, as they offer a lot more features—not only for general text editing but also for lightweight programming. Both editors let you edit multiple files at the same time in a single window. Kate shows the files in a list
view down the left side, while gedit shows your open files in a tabbed view across the top.

But, more importantly, both gedit and Kate have syntax highlighting. What this means for programmers is that these editors will display different bits of code in different colors. For example, variables used in your code may appear in one color, values appear in a second, comments appear in a third, and so on. This makes it very easy to see how everything is laid out in your code.

Another particularly useful feature that gedit and Kate share is the ability to extend the editor with plug-ins. These plug-ins can do all sorts of things, from manipulating text in the file to running external commands. For example, there are plug-ins for gedit and Kate that turn each into an SQL client for database connectivity. If you’re writing a lot of database code, this plug-in is ideal to verify that your SQL queries work correctly while you’re coding.

Cross-Platform Editors
Beyond gedit and Kate, there are a number of text editors that exist on both Linux and other platforms. Most of these editors are open source, so it’s no surprise that they are able to run on different platforms.

But because of Windows’ popularity in the operating system market, there are a lot of Windows-only text editors. What happens if you’re a fan of one of these editors but want to be able to run it on Linux? Although you can use WINE to run many of the Windows-native editors in Linux, some developers have created Linux versions of their respective editors.

One prominent example is UltraEdit (www.ultraedit.com), a highly regarded commercial text editor for Windows. IDM Computer Solutions, the makers of UltraEdit, recently released a Linux version of its text editor. Versions ready to install and run are available for the following Linux distributions: Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, and RedHat. For users of other Linux distributions, a generic precompiled binary is also available as a Gzipped TAR file.

Console Text Editors
Although we’ve been discussing text editors, we’ve primarily focused on the graphical text editors. Long before there were graphics, text editors were consolebased. These editors worked fine but often had cryptic keystrokes. As a result, they usually presented novices with a steep learning curve. With the advent of the modern desktop, you may wonder why anybody would continue bothering with console text editors.

One reason is that system administrators, like programmers, tend to be creatures of habit. So once they find a tool they like, they usually stick with it for as long as possible; that includes text editors. An example of how devoted people are to tools they like can be seen in ed, which is an early 1970s Unix text editor. It survives to this day in the Linux world, as you would expect, and the Windows world.

Another reason why people still use console text editors is that they’re more universally available. Sure, GNOME and KDE come with their graphical text editors, but in some environments, you won’t have access to the GUI. Some corporate security policies will specifically allow only remote console access to sensitive systems. In these cases, you have no choice but to use a console text editor.

There are a number of very powerful console text editors, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. In fact, before there were the operating system debates, Web browser debates, or smartphone debates, there were the text editor debates. People used to argue vehemently that their favorite console text editor was better than someone else’s.

One such popular text editor is vi, which works in two modes, Insert Mode and Command Mode. On most Linux distributions, vi has been replaced by Vim, which is very similar, but not identical, to vi. In vi’s Insert Mode, whatever you type on the keyboard is inserted into the file you’re editing. To start vi’s Insert Mode, you have to press I, to insert text, or O to create a new blank line and start inserting text. When you’re done inputting text, press ESC to start Command Mode. While in Command Mode, you can move around the file with the arrow keys and delete characters with the X key. When you’re done working with a file in vi, you have to go into Command Mode and type :wq. This will write the file to disk and close vi.

Certainly, vi is much more powerful than such a brief introduction we’ve given it. It has search and replace capability, either globally or within a certain range, the ability to save part of a file as another file, and macro capability. In fact, vi’s macro capability is so complex that it is able to let the user play simple games with it.

Text editors fill an important need in the world of Linux systems administrators and programmers. And Linux has a very good selection of editors.

Source of Information : Computer Power User (CPU) December 2010    
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