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GitHub Announces Atom 1.0

It took 18 months, 155 releases, and the efforts of hundreds of contributors to get here, but version 1.0 of GitHub's Atom text editor is now available. First released to open source in May 2014, Atom is a customizable, cross-platform text editor built with HTML, JavaScript, CSS and Node.js integration. It runs on the Electron framework, and it works on OS X, Windows or Linux.

It's an understatement to say that this "hackable text editor for the 21st century" has proved to be popular. Since it was released last year, Atom has been downloaded 1.3 million times, GitHub says, and it now has 350,000 monthly active users. That sizeable community has to date created 660 themes for the editor and 2,090 packages. And some big names have added Atom to their enterprise tool belts, including Facebook, which based its new, open source Nuclide IDE on Atom.

What makes Atom such a great innovation for developers? Let's start with the "hackable" part.

"Your dream editor and my dream editor are not the same thing," GitHub senior engineer Ben Ogle, a core engineer on the Atom project, told me. "I like a dark theme; you like a light theme. I write front-end code for websites; you write system code. We should not have to use the same editor. What we want at GitHub, and what Atom gives you, is total control over the editor so you can make it your dream editor."

In other words, developers can tweak Atom's look and add features that suit their individual needs.

"We want you to feel empowered to dig in," Ogle said. "That's why we built Atom on familiar technologies. You won't need to learn something new like you would if you were to, say, extend Emacs. "With Atom, you can use the knowledge you already have."

And the "21st century" part?

I think that was best explained to me last year by Nathan Sobo, a founding member of the Atom team.

"Now that we're in this polyglot world, you'll notice that whenever a new programming language starts to emerge, the first tools available for it are always Emacs and Vim," Sobo said. "It always starts with this very general purpose editor that someone has extended to make themselves more productive in this environment. So we developed Atom is to provide a tool that accelerates that process. A new language comes along and very quickly people can build fantastic tooling around it without having to wait for some business to get started that needs a guaranteed capital flow to build a customized product around that language."

Atom is the brainchild of GitHub founder Chris Wanstrath, who, the story goes, began experimenting with a desktop editor based on Web technologies back in 2008. He called it "Atomicity," and worked on it as a side project, until it was shelved in 2009 while he focused on the launch of GitHub.com. Wanstrath later revived the project, which evolved into Atom.

GitHub looks at Atom 1.0 as a foundational release that will support a burgeoning community, Ogle said. "We focused on the core editing experience and modularity [in Atom 1.0]," he said. "Now we have this giant community around us, with tons of core contributors. Lots of them have push access, but don't work at GitHub. It's getting to the point where we're really just shepherding the community," he said.

How does Atom fit into GitHub's overall social coding mission?

"It's called social coding, but what that means is that our mission is to help people work better together," Ogle said.

"Atom is part of that mission, long term," Ogle said. "We're defining the base with this release, but down the road we will be asking, what does it mean to have social coding in your editor? Editors are, historically, very individual things with no social component. What we're thinking about is how we might bring the social ideas from GitHub into your editor."

And in case you're thinking that the release of a new text editor, no matter how "hackable" and "21st century" it might be, is small potatoes, consider this insight from my interview with Sobo: "There is no more personal relationship that a programmer has to anything in his or her career than to their text editor," he said. "It's literally in the muscles of your hands! Even as you're crossing programming languages, the text editor is the one thing that can go with a developer for their entire career."

Ogle put together lots of details about the Atom 1.0 release, including lots of links and a more complete history, in a great post on the GitHub blog.

Posted by John K. Waters on June 26, 2015