Thursday, August 16, 2012

Open Source OS X and TextMate 2

TextMate is one of the most popular text editors available for OS X, but the second version has been “on the way” for so long that many considered it abandonware. It turns out they were not far off the mark. Recently, MacroMates released the source code for TextMate 2 under the GPL 3 license on GitHub. Will releasing the code breath new life into the beloved editor, or has it been sent out to pasture, where forsaken code goes to die?

It could be said that TextMate and Ruby on Rails started life together, shot into the spotlight with this video. The video was meant to explain the power of the Rails framework, but also showcased the features of TextMate. TextMate was adopted as the unofficial text editor of the Ruby community, and through it’s plugin architecture was soon extended to deal with code of all kinds. TextMate sold well, and it’s developer, Allan Odgaard, promised in 2006 that TextMate 2 would be available as a free upgrade. Excited by the abilities of the editor, as well as the promise of free upgrades, developers flocked to TextMate in droves.

Unfortunately, time dragged on and updates on the status of version were few and far between. Five years later, the spirits of those who were still using TextMate were lifted briefly when a public alpha was released. The alpha was, as most alphas are, buggy, and not at all a successor to the original TextMate. Fast-forward to August, and the long awaited text editor is finally here, but not in it’s final 2.0 stable release version, but as an open source project.

This should be a victory for the open source community. A popular commercial product released as open source for programmers everywhere to adopt seems like the perfect end to the story, but it reminds me of another open source Mac project; Letters was intended to be the mail client that we all wanted on the Mac; open source, powerful, and beautiful. However, while the project did have a good sized group of developers, and high profile people involved, the project quickly fizzled out and died a quiet, lonely death as it’s leads went to work on other projects. The Letters project revealed one aspect of the mindset of Mac developers; that open source is great, but there is still money to be made with commercial software. Could TextMate be headed to the same desperate fate of Letters? Possibly, but this story also reminds me of one other project.

Quicksilver is one of the most fantastic Mac applications available. More than just an application launcher, it is a modern command line, a keyboard centric control station for the Mac. Originally developed and released for free by Blacktree, the launcher slowly started to show signs of decline as the developer started to lag behind as the Mac OS was updated. Late in 2006, Quicksilver was released as open source, and quietly abandoned… for a while.

In 2011 a small group of developers picked up the source code for Quicksilver and started putting serious effort into modernizing it, as well as fixing some major bugs. A new domain was bought,, and life was rapidly brought back into the ailing application. Today, Quicksilver is once again the gold standard for Mac automation.

TextMate obviously shares more of a similar history with Quicksilver than Letters, but will that be enough? Quicksilver was brought back to life because a small team decided that they really loved that application, and that because of that love they were willing to spend serious time and resources on making it the best that they could. Now that Allan Odgaard has put down the code, who will be willing to take it up again? Will TextMate fail and die like Letters, or will it flourish into new life like Quicksilver? Only time will tell.

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