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Emacs GUI library · Andrey Listopadov

Emacs GUI library · Andrey Listopadov

2023-07-11 10:52:48

These days, my Magit buffer broke as soon as once more due to one thing bizarre happening with main mode, and I couldn’t stash or commit hunks until the purpose was originally of the road.
That after once more jogged my memory that Emacs UI just isn’t actually a UI, all of it’s mere textual content with a bunch of properties slapped on prime.
It’s straightforward to neglect about it, and use such issues like Treemacs, Customise, heck, even Org Mode, considering that you just’re interacting with UI components (file nodes in Treemacs, text-boxes in Customise, Org Modes sub-trees and drawers).
Nevertheless, it’s an phantasm, although neatly crafted.
It’s nonetheless textual content.

Nicely, what’s unhealthy about it you would possibly ask?
We love to govern textual content, Emacs even makes it really snug to do, with quite a lot of features devoted to it.
And buffers are additionally a really quick approach to manipulate even average quantities of textual content.
However ask your self, do you actually wish to do the identical form of factor in a unique UI system, outdoors of Emacs?
Perhaps if it got here with the identical quantity of helpful features?
Nicely, perhaps you’d wish to, however I certain don’t.

I’ve made my very own customized UI components in Kakoune, making a file tree, and tag listing plugins.
That was earlier than I really began utilizing Emacs as my essential setting, and Kakoune textual content properties are a lot much less subtle than ones of Emacs, however…
It’s the identical factor, actually.

You programmatically spit some textual content into the buffer, then you definitely parse it, discover components, stroll on them, change them, and so forth.
Sure, textual content properties, markers, overlays, all of it makes it extra sturdy in Emacs, however regardless that, issues nonetheless break.
As a result of Emacs nonetheless tries to interpret stiff in your buffer as textual content.

As a result of that’s what it does, it expects textual content!
For those who name forward-sexp on some Magit UI aspect it’s going to attempt to do the precise factor, even when there’s no proper factor – there aren’t any sexps within the Magit buffer.
Nicely, perhaps there are if you happen to’re viewing diffs of your lisp code, after which yeah, the good thing about every thing being textual content you possibly can transfer on turns into apparent.
Besides once we’re speaking about UI it’s not working extra of the instances than it’s helpful in an occasional context of that UI aspect.

I feel you in all probability get the place I’m going with this.
And also you in all probability don’t prefer it, however bear with me.
And it’s an indignant bear, so don’t threaten me greater than he does, please.

What I’m attempting to say is that Emacs, as a GUI utility isn’t one thing that I’d be promoting to different folks.
You can also make Emacs look stunning, little question about that, Nano Emacs, DOOM, and others strive very arduous to make Emacs visually interesting.
But it surely’s all too janky IMO.
Nano Emacs seems to be nice on the images, however resize a window and the phantasm of a coherent interface breaks quick.
So let’s take a look at totally different programs for inspiration:


I’ve already talked about Smalltalk prior to now relating to comparability with Emacs within the GUI discipline.
And I feel it’s a truthful factor to do – each are dynamic programs which you can program with their respective language.
Besides, one is GUI oriented just about from the beginning, and the opposite one is Emacs.

Have a look at how Smalltalk seems to be once you hearth up Pharo:

It’s a GUI system.
Full with home windows, containing textual content editors, browsers, context-aware menus, and so forth.
Perhaps it doesn’t look as fairly as your most popular GUI toolkit, however it’s not the primary level.

Though, right here’s how Smalltalk seems to be once you hearth up GToolkit, which is written in Pharo:

There are way more photos on the official web page.

The purpose of it’s which you can construct your individual instruments on your duties on this toolkit, as proven within the photos.
They name it constructing an inspector, and GToolkit comes with quite a lot of inspectors for numerous varieties of knowledge.

That is my favourite system to date, and it will get worse from right here however I really feel that we have to speak about different examples nonetheless.

Java Clojure

Why not?
Clojure is one other dynamic system, which you can change at runtime.
Whereas Java isn’t what involves thoughts when talking about stunning and useful GUI, making GUI apps in Clojure is much extra enjoyable than it’s in Java.
As a result of once more, you possibly can replace your UI components on the fly.

There are some examples of apps the place the UI is finished in Clojure, one instance is the sport engine known as Defold.

It seems to be like this:

Figure 4: I couldn’t find a non-skewed image on the official page.

Determine 4: I couldn’t discover a non-skewed picture on the official web page.

So far as I perceive, its Editor is made in Clojure, and UI is dealt with through the JavaFX toolkit.

Intellij Thought is many one other instance of a decent-looking GUI in Java, though your opinion might range.

Nonetheless, JVM isn’t the best at UI, and by some means one other language with a J within the identify managed to do considerably higher.


Lastly, the net is one other approach of constructing person interfaces, one that’s fairly widespread at this time.
As a result of the net works the identical throughout a majority of working programs, as browsers are ported to them with quite a lot of care.
Browsers are additionally extraordinarily able to rendering all types of file codecs, doing interactive stuff, and JavaScript frameworks are geared toward offering services for constructing UI that’s extremely responsive and interactive.

The net is nonetheless related to gradual, typically unresponsive UI, quite a lot of wasted display house, and pointless excessive CPU and reminiscence utilization.
Largely because of Electron packing a number of stuff.
I feel Electron wasn’t a nasty concept, the execution was simply poor.
There are different initiatives that present comparable services like Ultralight, however I didn’t examine additional.
I’m OK with the thought of constructing UI on internet applied sciences, so long as we’re making a strong system that works throughout a number of gadgets and really advantages from utilizing the browser.

There’s additionally this mission, which I discover cool as a result of it seems to be just like GToolkit:
Mainly, you get an infinite canvas, on which you’ll place textual content modifying widgets, video widgets, and different stuff.
Hold this factor in thoughts, I discover the thought of such UI fascinating, and possibly it is going to be explored extra sooner or later.

However, let’s get again to Emacs, and I’ll attempt to clarify why I used to be bragging about all these different programs.


Emacs has a windowing system.
Mainly like a tiling window supervisor – you’ve got a body, you possibly can divide it into home windows, you possibly can spawn different frames, you possibly can divide them, and so forth.
However, these home windows can solely show fundamental textual content, amongst some graphical components, like SVG graphics, or bitmaps.
For sure, when in comparison with any of the programs I’ve talked about earlier than the GUI capabilities of Emacs are fairly restricted.

Mainly, Emacs is a glorified terminal, with potential to attract totally different font sizes and respectable picture help.
Don’t make such a face, you already know it’s not removed from the reality.
Once more, this can be a bit harsh, however I imagine we have to admit issues with a view to transfer ahead.

Talking of terminals, Emacs can really run in a terminal!
You can begin it with emacs -nw and it’ll fortunately rework your terminal into Emacs.
I imply, you now not have a terminal, it simply acts as a rendering engine for Emacs.
So that you mainly get the identical factor as GUI Emacs however worse, as a result of now your terminal is chargeable for rendering fonts, and also you now not have any picture help.
Nicely, there are terminals that help photographs, however come on.

And I feel terminal help is without doubt one of the issues that holds Emacs again.
Give it some thought – why do you even want a terminal if you happen to’re already utilizing Emacs?

  • Have to ssh someplace to edit information or run some instructions?
  • Have to run some instructions on the whole?
    • You may name async-shell-command, it even can deal with your enter in case there’s a immediate;
    • Or you possibly can run compile, and it is going to be way more interactive than the uncooked terminal output.
  • Wish to run some advanced instructions with modifying comfort?
    • You may run eshell, and go nuts on scripting in Emacs Lisp and calling sh scripts from the Emacs shell;
    • Or you possibly can run a correct terminal emulator from Emacs.

I too beforehand was a terminal enjoyer earlier than Emacs.
As I’ve talked about, I used to be utilizing Kakoune, and previous to that, I used to be a Vim person.
Now, with Emacs, I not often open the terminal in any respect.
There’s merely no must, as there are extra snug methods of interacting with the shell.
So yeah, ditch the terminal model of Emacs, you’re ain’t gonna miss it.

Besides, don’t.
As a result of the answer I’m going to suggest doesn’t require something to be ditched in any respect.
However earlier than that, let’s speak XWidgets


Once I was speaking in regards to the internet, I’m certain a few of you considered XWidgets and Webkit help in Emacs.
Like, right here, I’m working the already talked about inside my Emacs proper now:

So what provides?
And at work, I sometimes use Portal to navigate by means of nested information buildings whereas debugging Clojure code:

Figure 5: (the code isn’t from work, just a hobby project)

Determine 5: (the code isn’t from work, only a pastime mission)

Once more, what provides?
This seems to be like we are able to have interactive GUIs in Emacs, very similar to in GToolkit and Pharo.
Nevertheless, there’s a catch.
There’s at all times a catch, and within the case of Emacs, it’s that the XWidget UIs are overseas to Emacs.

Right here, overseas signifies that inside that *xwidget-webkit: portal...* buffer nothing you anticipate to work will really work.
Bear in mind how I discussed that in Magit if you happen to name forward-sexp it’s going to attempt to do the precise factor?
Nicely, right here it could actually’t do something, as a result of this isn’t a buffer actually.
It’s an embedded widget that solely seems to be like a buffer within the Emacs window, however it’s not.

See Also

There’s no level in calling forward-sexp as a result of there’s actually no level in such a buffer.
You may’t use Avy to leap to a component in such a buffer as a result of there aren’t any textual components that Avy can take a look at.

Due to it, it’s mainly the identical as if you happen to’ve opened a separate internet browser facet by facet with Emacs and used it to browse the net, or run Portal, and it could in all probability even work higher.
Sadly, we are able to’t embed one thing like Webkit into Emacs and hope that it’s going to clear up our UI issues.
Or can we?

So right here’s my concept.
I’m fairly certain it’s not new, however that’s not the purpose of this weblog – it’s merely a container for my ideas, authentic or not.

What if, as an alternative of embedding Webkit into Emacs, we flip this round?
Hear me out.

Once I was speaking about opening a browser facet by facet with Emacs two seconds in the past, I ought to have talked about that window managers, or WMs for brief, are fairly good at inserting home windows.
For those who’re utilizing some form of a tiling supervisor, you already know what I imply – you possibly can depart window administration to your window supervisor.
Kakoune, as an example, does precisely that – as an alternative of making its personal windowing system, like Vim or Emacs, it leaves it out for issues like TMUX or i3 to unravel.
This, after all, has some issues too, however works properly sufficient on the whole.

However I’m not saying that we should always ditch windowing from Emacs and depart it to the WM, removed from it.
I’d moderately ditch frames from Emacs if you happen to ask me, however that’s one other subject.

Have a look at this as if Emacs was embedded into your window supervisor, which is mainly the way it works.
You begin your WM of alternative, you launch Emacs, and so long as the Emacs window is targeted, you reside in Emacs.
Your entire shortcuts work, and your whole navigation habits are there.

So what if we increase on this concept?
As a substitute of embedding Webkit, let’s embed Emacs in its present state as a UI widget.

The Widget Library

What I’m considering is, let’s take, say SDL2 (or perhaps one thing like ImGui), and create a library of widgets for Emacs.
We’ll then combine Emacs into it because the runtime system behind it, very similar to within the case of Smalltalk, JavaFX+Clojure, and Internet+JS, and supply a set of features to navigate by means of widgets in a significant approach.
The widgets would come with fundamental stuff, like buttons, textual content containers, buffers, drawers, menus… wait, buffers?

Sure, why ditch one thing that works properly?
Like once you focus Emacs in your WM and it simply works, when the buffer widget is in focus it’s going to simply work too!
We will hold the redisplay code, it’s going to simply must discover ways to render into such widgets, which I’m certain is feasible, as there’s a really comparable function in Emacs already, known as child-frames.

With sufficient widgets, one will have the ability to construct GUI, very similar to in GToolkit, however with Emacs Lisp, and we’ll nonetheless have all of the legacy textual interface working, e.g. issues like Magit don’t should throw every thing out of the window and adapt – they will proceed to work.
We simply must be sure you present sufficient extensibility, and a approach to implement customized widgets, very similar to Emacs permits proper now with its textual content properties, overlays, and such.
Then new plugins for the GUI toolkit will arrive, making Emacs much more extensible than earlier than.

Now, think about, you open Emacs and it creates a window that’s mainly like a desktop of your working system.
You open a window, and it’s an actual window, floating on that desktop.
Don’t prefer it?
Simply maximize it, the window widget will work equally to how home windows are created in Emacs proper now.
Besides it doesn’t should be a window displaying a buffer and nothing else – it could actually show different widgets, a few of that are buffers.

Frames develop into digital desktops, which they are surely, it’s simply that they’re represented as WM home windows as a result of Emacs didn’t embody methods of switching them just about (it did within the terminal mode really).
You may nonetheless open a separate “body” with a given digital desktop, so once more, every thing would work as you’d anticipate.

The way forward for Emacs

…in all probability isn’t what I’m describing right here.
I don’t know.
I’m simply fantasizing, however the picture of such a system I see behind my eyelids is nice.

I rely on Emacs, it’s my essential device for the job, this weblog, my different hobbies, and different actions, so I need this method to evolve.
That is only a route I feel it might take.
Once more, perhaps nothing of this makes any sense to you, however I encourage you to check out not less than the GToolkit, I feel it’s the most fascinating issues I noticed within the final years.
Pharo generally is a bit much less thrilling however it laid the muse for GT, and I feel that’s says one thing.
If it wasn’t for Clojure, and perhaps this weblog which I do in Org-mode, and if I by no means used Emacs I’d in all probability strive GToolkit sooner or later, and perhaps it could develop into my essential device, and I’d in all probability take a look at Emacs as an inferior system.
Nicely, not less than in the case of GUI capabilities.
However I nonetheless love Emacs as it’s, it fulfills my wants, and I could make it do what I need it to do, which is the primary level.

This put up was principally a group of random ideas, therefore the class, however I genuinely suppose that if a system like this may be created in Smalltalk or within the present state of the net, it’s definitively potential in Emacs, there’s simply not that a lot of an curiosity in it.
Nicely, really there may be, as I’ve talked about, folks attempting to make emacs extra stunning and interesting, however I feel we should always not neglect about utility too, and thus if somebody is to develop a GUI toolkit for Emacs they should put quite a lot of thought into it:

  • What widgets to incorporate;
  • How do you progress from widget to widget in an environment friendly approach;
  • What’s greatest completed with a mouse, and what shouldn’t be completed with it;
  • What stage of interactivity from Emacs Lisp we should always get;
  • Different questions like this.

So yeah, it’s going to take quite a lot of planning, prototyping, perhaps some competing programs to progress on this – let’s see the place Emacs will go within the upcoming 30 years.
Perhaps one other XEmacs will occur, or it is going to be compelled to evolve by one thing like Project Mage or Nyxt, and even one other system, that might embrace GToolkit’s modal-less interface and infinite canvas.
The arrival of digital and/or augmented actuality makes an fascinating infinite-canvas sort of interface candidate for my part, so perhaps we’ll cease seeing flat screens sooner or later, who is aware of?

Anyway, let me know what you suppose.
If in case you have any ideas you prefer to share, yow will discover my contacts on the About web page.
Hope it was an fascinating learn!

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