dominik wagner

SubEthaEdit 5 – Now free and open source!

The new version 5 of SubEthaEdit, the Apple Design Award winning text editor for macOS, is now available free of charge in the App Store and as direct download. The complete source code with history going back 15 years is also available under the MIT License.

This release fills me with great pride and joy. SubEthaEdit always has a special place in my heart. It is where my journey as a developer in the Apple ecosystem started. I owe it the position I am in today. This connection is why I'm taking the time to maintain it again and try to lead it towards a long lasting future. Therefore I think it is worthwhile looking at how everything came together.


It all started with the initial set of peers at our university at the end of 2002: Ulrich Bauer, Martin Ott, Martin Pittenauer and me. As university students we wanted to build something real. So we searched for a project to grow into a fully grown app. Motivated by the Apple Design Awards competition, we challenged ourselves with a fitting deadline to do submit an entry.

At that point in time there weren't many good native text editors on the platform, so doing a general purpose text editor was always an aspiration of mine. I had recently switched from my old Acorn RiscPC over to the Mac, and was really missing my then beloved StrongEd (fair warning that website is quite a sight, as sadly most of the RiscOS ecosystem is and almost always was in terms of style).

I was playing around with the existing text editors, but BBEdit really wasn't for me (and at this time very Carbon, and as such looked dated and did not integrate too smoothly into the new OS X). Personally I went with MacroMedia's Dreamweaver as the least bad option for my web development work.

Luckily one of us dug up an old Xerox Parc Paper that showed how latency free live collaboration can be done. At that time it fit perfectly with the newly released Bonjour technology to allow for networking without configuration between Macs. That was super exciting and we quickly got to a point where we could see this technology as viable and so we went on to build our application.

It was with great joy that we submitted our freely available work, then named Hydra, to the awards, and with even more joy that we won in the student category we applied in.

At that time we didn't charge any money for it. Only at the end of our university careers, the three remaining of us started out our luck as TheCodingMonkeys to live the dream of a Mac indie studio. We all started out doing this part time, the transition from free software to paid shareware did not support more than one person at that time. And while it was fantastic to see SubEthaEdit being used in conferences all over the world, the financial aspects weren't looking great for us.

Marketing wise we shoehorned ourselves into the collaborative aspects, and failed to communicate the fact that SubEthaEdit was a great general purpose text editor of its own right. Worse, the commercial start of SubEthaEdit was overshadowed by the then not yet released TextMate. This was mainly based on David Heinemeier Hansson's well deserved hype of the initial ruby on rails videos featuring it. So we lost the race for the second most popular text editor on the platform (BBEdit still got the first place because of Mac users loyalty and steady development), and therefore the commercial success too.

SubEthaEdit icon history. Unused initial draft, Hydra, SubEthaEdit 2.x, 3.x-4.x, now.

It was at this point that we began struggling a little. While we had enough success to sustain one person, we were not on track to support more than that. Developing and maintaining SubEthaEdit easily consumed most of our time though. It is by that fact, that we all had still day jobs. And while we dabbled in other product ideas (one of the bigger ones a more creative writing based collaboration tool codenamed 'Fenchurch') we didn't get to produce any.

Fenchurch prototype mockup.

Instead we got another lucky break. The great folks at Panic were planning their then secret Coda, and were looking for something they could base their editing engine on. And that influx of financial support was what enabled us to become a real working company. We are forever grateful to Panic for this, as they essentially gave us this opportunity. This was the point in time when Martin Ott, our third co-founder left us, and we started venturing to build Carcassonne for iOS. Another project of mine that was very close to my heart. I have been a board game geek from my early teens on, and joining this with my professional world was just a fantastic opportunity. It also gave me the opportunity to do real production work with Erlang.

The success of Carcassonne also had a somewhat unfortunate side effect for us: With still no real viable long term business story for SubEthaEdit it moved more and more on the back burner. We still maintained it and brought it up to the App Store eventually, but sadly it couldn't prove its financial viability. A big shout out goes to Lisa Brodner and Michael Ehrmann, who took the bulk of the work to create the 4.x releases.

And while it served us well, even for our own development – SubEthaEdit was our main editor to develop it, in the times of Project Builder with external editor support – it did not plant roots in any specific community. And with Xcode slowly getting better, moving to the single window layout only and providing all the Project aware metadata we couldn't, even our own top use case went away. However, we are still very fond of it and use it for all things scripting and of course text creation and collaboration.

Fast forwarding to 4 years ago, I left TheCodingMonkeys to try my luck in the US working for UIKit at Apple while Martin Pittenauer took over the company. It was with both surprise and delight that I experienced how SubEthaEdit still resonated with many of my colleagues there. Even with the success of Carcassonne, SubEthaEdit seemed to have been the product that was part of many of their pasts.

So now that I'm back to a more independent life I feel that SubEthaEdit deserves a future. Although I'm not rejoining TheCodingMonkeys, we are on good terms and we were able to make an arrangement that hopefully proves beneficial to everyone. From today on SubEthaEdit will be free and open source.

What was the focus for this release?

  • Bring the code base into a state that builds fine and fully supports macOS Mojave
  • Generate a nice repository with as much history as possible, both for reference and educational purposes (Fun fact: SubEthaEdit started out in Subversion, had a long time in Mercurial and very much later moved on to git)
  • Update and or remove dependent libraries, support current Mojave features
  • Get into shape for dual App Store and Website download releases, so contributions can have a quick turnaround time
  • Remove the dependency on the Website for system integration, e.g. the see tool and authorization scripts are now part of the distribution

What are my hopes for the future?

  • Attract contributors to ensure a long term thriving ecosystem
  • The free availability both in and out of the App Store should reduce the barrier to entry to the collaborative use cases in education, pair programming, etc, leading to good bug reports and use cases that are worth investing some future development in
  • Support for more languages, modes and contributions thereof
  • Longevity of SubEthaEdit as a product

So I hope you all share and enjoy this release, file bug reports, enhancement requests and contribute the scripts, modes and styles you make.

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