GitHub releases free and open Atom code editor

The standalone code editor powered by JavaScript and Chromium is available for free under the MIT license

After months of testing and loads of hands-on feedback from tens of thousands of users, GitHub's programmable text editor Atom is now available for the general public to download. Its pricetag: free, with its source code available under the MIT license -- an ideal choice to quell any lingering questions about its licensing or monetization method.

Atom's main claim to fame is its hackability and extensability. Created by using Google's Chromium for its display engine and Node.js for its backend, Atom allows its functionality to be extended by either third parties or the end user by way of packages written in CoffeeScript or JavaScript.

In fact, Atom could be considered a 21st-century Emacs, the venerable text editor that's still in wide use among veteran programmers. The galaxy of add-ons for Atom include not only support for the behaviors of another old-school text editor, Vim, but also everything from tabbed editing to tree-view explorations for an Atom project.

When word of Atom first began to circulate, some developers wondered what its licensing model would be (e.g., open core with for-pay add-ons), or how closely it would be tied into GitHub's services. In announcing Atom's release, GitHub's Nathan Sobo (Atom team developer) and Chris Kelly (developer relations lead) made it clear that the licensing was designed to "leave the door open to allow others to do what was best for Atom." There are no plans on the table to monetize the product, either through cost-plus add-ons or services.

"GitHub's core mission has been enabling collaboration with software," Sobo said. "We're developers too, and we wanted to build this for ourselves as it is, but also make the community as big and vibrant as it can me and worry about money later."

Another element of Atom that might give GitHub skeptics pause is the package management system. Like Node.js itself, Atom uses a package manager to control the installation of add-ons. But right now, the back end for those add-ons is only via repositories on GitHub itself. That said, Sobo and Kelly reassured me that future releases of Atom would allow users to define their own Git-based source for add-ons.

Sobo and Kelly are also interested in seeing how the hackability of Atom extends not only to the add-on system within the project, but with the way the project's own bones -- its mix of Chromium and Node.js -- might be used to package and deliver other JavaScript/HTML5-powered desktop applications in the future as well. GitHub tried an existing project, node-webkit, as a possible base, but in the end elected to create its own parallel project to better obtain what it wanted.

The biggest existing direct competition for Atom would most likely be the for-pay, closed-source Sublime Text, which enjoys a broad user base and exists in OS X, Windows, and Linux editions. Sublime Text is also extensible, with its own culture of add-ons and plug-ins, but it uses Python instead of JavaScript for its extensibility, meaning the two might end up being complementary rather then competing in terms of what they offer programmers looking for a customizable work environment.

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