Acme: A User Interface for Programmers

Rob Pike


A hybrid of window system, shell, and editor, Acme gives text-oriented applications a clean, expressive, and consistent style of interaction. Traditional window systems support interactive client programs and offer libraries of pre-defined operations such as pop-up menus and buttons to promote a consistent user interface among the clients. Acme instead provides its clients with a fixed user interface and simple conventions to encourage its uniform use. Clients access the facilities of Acme through a file system interface; Acme is in part a file server that exports device-like files that may be manipulated to access and control the contents of its windows. Written in a concurrent programming language, Acme is structured as a set of communicating processes that neatly subdivide the various aspects of its tasks: display management, input, file server, and so on.

Acme attaches distinct functions to the three mouse buttons: the left selects text; the middle executes textual commands; and the right combines context search and file opening functions to integrate the various applications and files in the system.

Acme works well enough to have developed a community that uses it exclusively. Although Acme discourages the traditional style of interaction based on typescript windows—teletypes—its users find Acme’s other services render typescripts obsolete.

History and motivation

The usual typescript style of interaction with Unix and its relatives is an old one. The typescript—an intermingling of textual commands and their output—originates with the scrolls of paper on teletypes. The advent of windowed terminals has given each user what amounts to an array of teletypes, a limited and unimaginative use of the powers of bitmap displays and mice. Systems like the Macintosh that do involve the mouse as an integral part of the interaction are geared towards general users, not experts, and certainly not programmers. Software developers, at least on time-sharing systems, have been left behind.

Figure 1. A small Acme screen—normally it runs on a larger display—demonstrating some of the details discussed in the text. The right column contains some guide files, a mailbox presented by Acme’s mail program, the columnated display of files in Acme’s own source directory, a couple of windows from the OED browser, a debugger window, and an error window showing diagnostics from a compilation. The left column holds a couple of source files (dat.h and acme.l), another debugger window displaying a stack trace, and a third source file (time.l). Time.l was opened from the debugger by clicking the right mouse button on a line in the stack window; the mouse cursor landed on the offending line of acme.l after a click on the compiler message.

Some programs have mouse-based editing of text files and typescripts; ones I have built include the window systems mux [Pike88] and [Pike91] and the text editor Sam [Pike87]. These have put the programmer’s mouse to some productive work, but not wholeheartedly. Even experienced users of these programs often retype text that could be grabbed with the mouse, partly because the menu-driven interface is imperfect and partly because the various pieces are not well enough integrated.

Other programs—EMACS [Stal93] is the prime example—offer a high degree of integration but with a user interface built around the ideas of cursor-addressed terminals that date from the 1970’s. They are still keyboard-intensive and dauntingly complex.

The most ambitious attempt to face these issues was the Cedar system, developed at Xerox [Swei86]. It combined a new programming language, compilers, window system, even microcode—a complete system—to construct a productive, highly integrated and interactive environment for experienced users of compiled languages. Although successful internally, the system was so large and so tied to specific hardware that it never fledged.

Cedar was, however, the major inspiration for Oberon [Wirt89], a system of similar scope but much smaller scale. Through careful selection of Cedar’s ideas, Oberon shows that its lessons can be applied to a small, coherent system that can run efficiently on modest hardware. In fact, Oberon probably errs too far towards simplicity: a single-process system with weak networking, it seems an architectural throwback.

Acme is a new program, a combined window system, editor, and shell, that applies some of the ideas distilled by Oberon. Where Oberon uses objects and modules within a programming language (also called Oberon), Acme uses files and commands within an existing operating system (Plan 9). Unlike Oberon, Acme does not yet have support for graphical output, just text. At least for now, the work on Acme has concentrated on producing the smoothest user interface possible for a programmer at work.

The rest of this paper describes Acme’s interface, explains how programs can access it, compares it to existing systems, and finally presents some unusual aspects of its implementation.

User interface

Figure 2. An Acme window showing a section of code. The upper line of text is the tag containing the file name, relevant commands, and a scratch area (right of the vertical bar); the lower portion of the window is the body, or contents, of the file. Here the scratch area contains a command for the middle button (mk) and a word to search for with the right button (cxfidalloc). The user has just clicked the right button on cxfidalloc and Acme has searched for the word, highlighted it, and moved the mouse cursor there. The file has been modified: the center of the layout box is black and the command Put appears in the tag.

Acme windows are arrayed in columns (Figure 1) and are used more dynamically than in an environment like X Windows or [Sche86, Pike91]. The system frequently creates them automatically and the user can order a new one with a single mouse button click. The initial placement of a new window is determined automatically, but the user may move an existing window anywhere by clicking or dragging a layout box in the upper left corner of the window.

Acme windows have two parts: a tag holding a single line of text, above a body holding zero or more lines (Figure 2). The body typically contains an image of a file being edited or the editable output of a program, analogous to an EMACS shell window. The tag contains the name of the window (usually the name of the associated file or directory), some built-in commands, and a scratch area to hold arbitrary text. If a window represents a directory, the name in the tag ends with a slash and the body contains a list of the names of the files in the directory. Finally, each non-empty body holds a scroll bar at the left of the text.

Each column of windows also has a layout box and a tag. The tag has no special meaning, although Acme pre-loads it with a few built-in commands. There is also a tag across the whole display, also loaded with helpful commands and a list of active processes started by Acme.

Typing with the keyboard and selecting with the left button are as in many other systems, including the Macintosh, , and Sam. The middle and right buttons are used, somewhat like the left button, to ‘sweep’ text, but the indicated text is treated in a way that depends on the text’s location—context—as well as its content. This context, based on the directory of the file containing the text, is a central component of Acme’s style of interaction.

Acme has no single notion of ‘current directory’. Instead, every command, file name, action, and so on is interpreted or executed in the directory named by the tag of the window containing the command. For example, the string mammals in a window labeled /lib/ or /lib/insects will be interpreted as the file name /lib/mammals if such a file exists.

Throughout Acme, the middle mouse button is used to execute commands and the right mouse button is used to locate and select files and text. Even when there are no true files on which to operate—for example when editing mail messages—Acme and its applications use consistent extensions of these basic functions. This idea is as vital to Acme as icons are to the Macintosh.

The middle button executes commands: text swept with the button pressed is underlined; when the button is released, the underline is removed and the indicated text is executed. A modest number of commands are recognized as built-ins: words like Cut, Paste, and New name functions performed directly by Acme. These words often appear in tags to make them always available, but the tags are not menus: any text anywhere in Acme may be a command. For example, in the tag or body of any window one may type Cut, select it with the left button, use the middle button to execute it, and watch it disappear again.

If the middle button indicates a command that is not recognized as a built-in, it is executed in the directory named by the tag of the window holding the text. Also, the file to be executed is searched for first in that directory. Standard input is connected to /dev/null, but standard and error outputs are connected to an Acme window, created if needed, called dir/+Errors where dir is the directory of the window. (Programs that need interactive input use a different interface, described below.) A typical use of this is to type mk (Plan 9’s make) in the scratch area in the tag of a C source window, say /sys/src/cmd/sam/regexp.c, and execute it. Output, including compiler errors, appears in the window labeled /sys/src/cmd/sam/+Errors, so file names in the output are associated with the windows and directory holding the source. The mk command remains in the tag, serving as a sort of menu item for the associated window.

Like the middle button, the right button is used to indicate text by sweeping it out. The indicated text is not a command, however, but the argument of a generalized search operator. If the text, perhaps after appending it to the directory of the window containing it, is the name of an existing file, Acme creates a new window to hold the file and reads it in. It then moves the mouse cursor to that window. If the file is already loaded into Acme, the mouse motion happens but no new window is made. For example, indicating the string sam.h in

#include "sam.h"

in a window on the file /sys/src/cmd/sam/regexp.c will open the file /sys/src/cmd/sam/sam.h.

If the file name is followed immediately by a colon and a legal address in Sam notation (for example a line number or a regular expression delimited in slashes or a comma-separated compound of such addresses), Acme highlights the target of that address in the file and places the mouse there. One may jump to line 27 of dat.h by indicating with the right button the text dat.h:27. If the file is not already open, Acme loads it. If the file name is null, for example if the indicated string is :/^main/, the file is assumed to be that of the window containing the string. Such strings, when typed and evaluated in the tag of a window, amount to context searches.

layout box in the upper left corner of the window.

Acme windows have two parts: a tag holding a single line of text, above a body holding zero or more lines (Figure 2). The body typically contains an image of a file being edited or the editable output of a program, analogous to an EMACS shell window. The tag contains the name of the window (usually the name of the associated file or directory), some built-in co