Recently I learned of the first-ever State of Emacs survey and I wanted to share a few thought about it with my readers. Okay, the survey is officially named just “Emacs Survey”, but it clearly draws a lot of inspiration from the numerous “State of Technology X” surveys that have become popular in recent years. That’s why I took the liberty to re-frame it in a way that will probably be familiar to more people.

The “State of Something” surveys are typically ran by the teams maintaining some project to assess the health of its ecosystem, the needs of their users, the problems that need to be solved, the tools that people are using and so on. A good example would be the State of Clojure, that I participate in every year. There are similar surveys for many programming languages and even for some tools - e.g. I ran in the past a State of CIDER survey.1 Ideally, the data collected from the surveys drives the future development to some extent, and results in a better experience for everyone involved. I can speak from experience that the “State of Clojure” and “State of CIDER” surveys definitely influenced the direction of the projects.

The “State of Emacs” survey is a somewhat different, though. One thing that bothers me a bit about the Emacs survey is that its site doesn’t list any clear purpose/goals for the survey. That definitely seems pretty weird to me. I saw the survey discussed on the Emacs mailing list and on Reddit, but sticking a paragraph of rationale on the survey site would have certainly helped. The survey is also not official in the sense, that it’s not initiated by Emacs’s development team, and judging by the hostility the topic generated on the emacs-devel mailing list it’s not like they were particularly excited about it.2 It was funny that most of the comments were complaints about things like the use of non-free JavaScript in the survey form and topics like that, instead of some constructive conversation about the format of the survey. I was especially upset about the hostility towards the amazing MELPA project on the mailing list (in his typical style RMS even wanted MELPA to be denounced in the survey, as he considers it evil). Implying that it’d be easy to replace MELPA with some core Emacs repository is like a bad joke, given how the deficiencies of GNU ELPA were the reason for the rise of MELPA in the first place. Anyways, I’m digressing.

Despite of all my concerns, I hope that the survey be a success in the sense that it will collect enough useful data points to influence the future development roadmap of Emacs and align better the vision of Emacs’s maintainers with the needs and the usage patterns of their users. I’ve already filled out the survey myself and I liked the questions in it, although, I would have definitely structured it somewhat differently. I see some constant trend to compare stuff in Emacs with external packages (e.g. Magit vs vc, Flycheck vs Flymake, Projectile vs project.el), which I find slightly bizarre given the trend in Emacs to move as many built-in packages as possible to GNU ELPA, and the fact that Emacs has always been about diversity of solutions, picking whatever works best for you and so on. Standardization efforts seems somewhat against the spirit of Emacs, but that’s just my very personal take.3

In case someone is curious about my Emacs wish list - I don’t really care about changing any defaults, package improvements or anything like this. I’d like to see more efforts for improving Emacs Lisp, the standard library (libraries like seq.el and map.el were great additions IMO), making it possible to build rich UIs in some sane manner (overlays are quite limiting). I’d also love to see the bar to contributing to be lowered:

  • drop the contributor agreement
  • discuss ideas in an (modern) issue tracker, instead of on a mailing list
  • apply less political activism and more pragmatism in the conversation around new ideas/features4

I doubt anything like this is going to happen any time soon, but one can dream, right?

Finally, I’m obviously curious how my own Emacs Prelude and my packages like Projectile, crux and so on will fare in the survey. Are Zenburn and Solarized still the most popular color themes out there? You tell me! :-)

Big thanks to Adrien Brochard for undertaking this daunting task and creating the “State of Emacs” survey! It will be open until the end of November. You can fill out the survey form directly here. Share your perspective!

Update You might also want to check this follow-up discussion, triggered by my article.

  1. CIDER is a personal project of mine. 

  2. That being said, way too many topics generate unwarranted hostility there. 

  3. Some degree of standardization is not a bad thing, though. 

  4. And in decision-making in general.