The Nucleus of Atom
nathansobo — 26 Feb 2014
The web is not without its faults, but two decades of development has forged it into an incredibly malleable and powerful platform. So when we set out to write a text editor that we ourselves would want to extend, web technology was the obvious choice. But first, we had to free it from its chains.
The Native Web
Web browsers are great for browsing web pages, but writing code is a specialized activity that warrants dedicated tools. More importantly, the browser severely restricts access to the local system for security reasons, and for us, a text editor that couldn't write files or run local subprocesses was a non-starter.
For this reason, we didn't build Atom as a traditional web application. Instead, Atom is a specialized variant of Chromium designed to be a text editor rather than a web browser. Every Atom window is essentially a locally-rendered web page.
Since everything is local, you don't have to worry about asset pipelines, script concatenation, and asynchronous module definitions. If you want to load some code, just
require it at the top of your file. Node's module system makes it easy to break the system down into lots of small, focused packages.
Interacting with native code is also really simple. For example, we wrote a wrapper around the Oniguruma regular expression engine for our TextMate grammar support. In a browser, that would have required adventures with NaCl or Esprima. Node integration made it easy.
In addition to the Node APIs, we also expose APIs for native dialogs, adding application and context menu items, manipulating the window dimensions, etc.
Web Tech: The Fun Parts
Another great thing about writing code for Atom is the guarantee that it's running on the newest version of Chromium. That means we can ignore issues like browser compatibility and polyfills. We can use all the web's shiny features of tomorrow, today.
For example, the layout of our workspace and panes is based on flexbox. It's an emerging standard and has gone through a lot of change since we started using it, but none of that mattered as long as it worked.
With the entire industry pushing web technology forward, we're confident that we're building Atom on fertile ground. Native UI technologies come and go, but the web is a standard that becomes more capable and ubiquitous with every passing year. We're excited to dig deeper into its toolbox.