[7 July 2009]
A number of XML experts I know use Emacs for editing XML, employing either James Clark’s nxml mode or Lennart Staflin’s psgml mode. But few people who don’t already know Emacs are eager to learn it.
My evil twin Enrique suggested a reason: “In the old days,” (he means thirty years ago, when he first learned to use computers), “using a computer mostly meant using a mainframe. Which meant, on most university campuses, using a public terminal room. Which meant there were usually other people around who might be able to help figure out how to make the editor do something. Emacs was able to spread widely in that culture because the written documentation was not the only available source of information. (Did Emacs even have written documentation in those days?) Emacs, and a lot of other tools, were propagated by oral tradition.
“Nowadays, however, the oral traditions of the public terminal room are mostly dead. What the user cannot figure out how to use from the user interface and (perhaps) a glance at the documentation, might as well not be in the program. Fewer and fewer users will trouble to learn Emacs.
“I predict that when the people who first learned computing in a mainframe terminal room are dead, Emacs will be effectively dead, too. Its natural method of propagation is by looking over someone’s shoulder at what they are doing and asking ‘How did you do that?’ That doesn’t happen when computing almost always happens in private places.
“R.I.P., Emacs,” he intoned mournfully. “And probably TeX and LaTeX, too.”
“Well, hang on,” I said. “Neither Emacs nor TeX is dead yet.”
“Maybe not, but it’s only a matter of time. They’ll end up in the Retro-Computing Museum.” I could have sworn I saw a tear in his eye.
“But, you know, it’s only a matter of time for all of us. And besides, you’re wrong in at least some ways. I did indeed spend the first few years of my computing life haunting university terminal rooms. I got a lot of help from other people, and I passed it on. But I didn’t use TeX or Emacs until years later. The oral traditions of the terminal room, if they ever actually existed, had nothing to do with it. Both Emacs and TeX are perfectly capable of acquiring new users without oral transmission.”
He looked up. “You mean, there’s hope yet?”
“There’s always hope. But no, I’m still not going to help you debug that self-modifying 360 Assembler program you brought over. I’ve got work to do.”