Rise of the Plain Text Editors

The recent rise in popularity of plain-text and markup-shorthand editors has been an interesting and, to me, somewhat surprising phenomenon. As a software engineer, I’ve always felt right at home taking notes in plain-text form (I’m by now quite used to my wife shaking her head incredulously when she notices me jotting notes down in TextMate instead of Word), but I wouldn’t have expected the practice to gain momentum in the broader computer-user mainstream the way that it has.

I think a combination of several factors accounts for it — including:

  • HTML being a somewhat verbose markup language
  • a desire to avoid the tempting distractions of text styling and reclaim focus on our content
  • lack of advanced styled text editing support on the immensely popular iPad and iPhone, where people are spending more and more of their time
  • frustration with word processing apps that try to be “too smart” about auto-styling content
  • aversion to entrusting our work to proprietary file formats

The new generation of plain-text and markup-shorthand apps includes many that are delightful in their clever inventiveness and UI styling, and there are absolutely times when plain text, or a simple and convenient shorthand based on plain text, is what one wants. I’ve used, enjoyed, and recommended Markdown for years (having TrunkNotes on my iPad and iPhone has made it especially valuable to me), and I’ve benefitted greatly from the elegant solution it offers. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether the resurgence of interest in plain text editors also points, in part, to a failing. Why aren’t tools for conveniently writing sophisticated, modern HTML in its native form more common? Why are we still writing HTML by hand, or writing things other than HTML to get an HTML result, in cases where the content being written is primarily styled text? And where are the tools to support us in developing, and consistently applying, our own semantic styling conventions?

These questions have been the driving motivation behind TypeMetal. I believed it was possible to do better — to elevate HTML to a more fully supported, first-class editable data type on OS X, by providing an adept, Mac-native editing experience that gains pliability without sacrificing power. Just as a 3D modeling app is a far better tool for building and editing 3D models than a plain-text editor, we ought to have the option of specialized apps to support us in producing HTML with greater ease and agility. For those who want to embrace modern best practices and produce first-rate, CSS-ready HTML, I believe TypeMetal is a great way to go, and I look forward to making it even better.