The impossibility to maintain Atom

Atom Editor was, and still is, an amazing piece of technology. It was the first practical example of web technologies running locally, applied to a really hard problem: text editors. It it was, and still is, darn good at handling code.

But it’s hard, close to impossible, to maintain as the way it is. I want you to take all my opinions with a grain of salt, because these represent my own ideas and feelings on the project – I’m not a full-time Atom developer, nor I intend to be one. I just closely followed its development cycle, helped find bugs and problems in the first editions, and I still am in love with the editor, even when it’s clearly dying.

And while I would love to modernize the editor, making some PRs and fixing some issues, it’s close to impossible to do it. I believe the problem lies on the fact that Atom was an editor, and then Electron was extracted from it. I made the same choice on Chlorine too: I first made the plug-in, then extracted REPL-Tooling from it. Even on a WAY SMALLER codebase (Chlorine), this was HARD: there are still internal, private data that is used inside Chlorine that is not on REPL-Tooling.

Atom is the same. The “setup project” for Atom (prepare Electron, parse cmdline args, etc) is INSANELY huge. There are insane cyclic dependencies (TextEditor depends on components, UI, etc, and these depends back on the editor), there are NPM modules that depend on the editor (so you have code living in Atom that is used on NPM packages, and these also access internal state instead of going thought the public API) and there are outdated web features. There’s also some insanity happening: using newer versions of Node.JS got me 404 trying to run npm install, and even using the node version that Atom says to use in the documentation (that’s also NOT the current LTS version of node, mind you) didn’t work reliably. The only way I was able to install all dependencies was by running yarn install FOUR TIMES, and that did the trick (I got a different error every try, but at least, it worked).

But the problem is not this one: there’s simply too much code that lives “outside” Atom.