Emacs' Buffer: The Ultimate Idea

Do you ever struggle to explain Emacs’ astounding power to other non-Emacsers?

Usually I do, but in this post is the first time that I ever felt that I did it some justice. But that is just a feeling and I want to know your take on it.

It is raw and unrefined, but, if you can read it just from one Emacser to another Emacser then want to hear your take on it, too. Your time is precious and this is something near and dear to my heart so I appreciate you spending your time to share your feedback and ideas.

Here is my response to the question What are the pros and cons of Emacs’ everything is a buffer approach and how does Atom compare in this regard?

Emacs’ Buffer: The Ultimate Idea

Buffers are the graphical-user-interface-abstraction for every single thing that you would ever want to do in an editor. They are backed by powerful libraries for managing buffers, a powerful programming language Emacs Lisp and the entire operating environment of your personally customized Emacs instance. Once you learn how and your personal workflow for operating upon a buffer then you can enjoy operating upon anything that can be abstracted by a buffer. Buffers make things convenient for operating on text abstractions.


Some of the pros of the buffer approach follow.

Use a buffer for editing the contents of every kind of file ASCII, extended ASCII, Unicode, binary, compressed, delimited, locally and remotely. It is convenient because you only learn how to operate upon the buffer text-based abstraction once then you can do it anywhere for anything.

Use a buffer for implementing a user interface for text-completion, searching for things, configuring things, input forms and dialogues, popup messages, file system explorer and showing messages and warnings. It is convenient because you only learn how to operate upon the buffer text-based abstraction once then you can do it anywhere for anything.

Combine those two abstractions and you get all sorts of convenient stuff. Search across multiple files, either from a command for a GUI, list the results in one buffer, make changes to that search result buffer to make changes to all of the search results backing files or buffers. Interact with every kind of external process from a buffer. Chain outputs and inputs of buffers to each other maybe to from and two external processes interchangeably. Debugger and linters live in a buffer. Once you learn the abstraction you can do anything with it. At the flick of a switch go between a rich editor performing spell checking and reporting quality issues and highlighting changes since our last commit; and back to a writing environment that minimizes distractions and helps with your personal flow. It is your personal text based programmatic workflow. All of the software packages and APIs are built around buffers so it is easy to personalize what you want to accomplish and it is all in Lisp so it is easy to to make those changes and MELPA makes it easy to share the. It is your email client. It is your IRC client. It is your USENET client. It is your Git client. It is your software package manager like apt-get or yum on Linux or Brew on OS-X or Chocolatey on Windows. Assimilate the best features from every other editor and IDE out there. Make Emacs work completely differently like VIM instead. Or Visual Studio. Or Eclipse. It is convenient because you only learn how to operate upon the buffer text-based abstraction once then you can do it anywhere for anything.

People often come to Emacs because it is convenient to do just about anything easily without having to learn about buffers and all that other stuff and everyone else has already provided all of those great features.

People often stay with Emacs because they can easily create and share those new to the world features themselves.

These are some of the pros of the buffer model.


Some of the cons of the buffer model follow.

It takes too much time to learn and that is inconvenient. It is weird. The documentation is too long. Nobody can really explain why the buffer model is so great. The same thing that makes the abstraction simple and powerful takes too much time to learn about why it is so simple and powerful. When you tell people that you use it they roll their eyes and sigh. It requires learning LISP aka “Lots of Irritating Stupid Parentheses”. Also people write too much and too long about it which can be a poor use of your time to read it.

It can all be very inconvenient.

These are some of the cons of the buffer model.

2 thoughts on “Emacs' Buffer: The Ultimate Idea”

  1. My grief with LISP isn’t so much the parenthesis as the rigidity of “code is data is code is data. . .”. That is, the LISP interpreter sees everything.
    Python has the drop on LISP with the triple-quote concept, IMO.
    Triple-quoting is a brilliant concept that makes doing DSLs, e.g. regular expressions, less painful.
    If I was ever a good enough emacs hacker, I’d love to do something as a patch that would piss off the LISP purists, and implement some sort of triple quote in Emacs.

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