This is a draft of a document which will be submitted to the 4th International Python Conference to be held at June 4-6, 1996 at the Lawrence Livermore labs in California.

This document describes aspects of Wily which are not yet released for beta testing.

Wily + Python > Emacs + Lisp?

Gary Capell <gary@cs.su.oz.au>
Basser Department of Computer Science,
University of Sydney, 2006
Wily is an editing environment which can be extended with Python programs. Instead of using an embedded Python interpreter, Wily talks a simple message protocol, and a module lets Python speak the same protocol. This approach is general (one can use any language) and clean (the editor is responsible for only a small set of functions). The message interface promotes a clear separation of functions, with the Wily editing environment providing a standard way of interacting with client programs. The main disadvantage may be that the looser binding between programming language and editor is less efficient, but this is not expected to be a significant problem.

The editor itself is simple, clean, and efficient, with a few features which combine consistently. It abandons backwards compatibility with the virtual terminals of yesteryear, to take full advantage of a bitmapped terminal and three button mouse.

Table of Contents

This documet describes:

An appendix defines the Python interface in more detail.

Overview of Wily

This is necessarily very brief, and Wily and Acme are very different from what most people are used to. Please read Rob Pike's paper for a better and more complete description of the interface.

Wily's main attractions are that it is very simple (the User Manual describing the whole user interface is about seven pages), very quick to use, and integrates well with other Unix tools.


Wily emulates in the Unix and X Windows environment the Acme editor from Plan 9. Acme couldn't easily be ported to Unix because it is written in Alef (a concurrent programming language not widely available) and uses non-portable features of Plan 9 . Also, a port of Acme would not be freely distributable.

The name ``Wily'' derives from Wile E. Coyote, an avid consumer of Acme products.

Modern Aesthetics

Wily windows, Unicode text propotionally spaced

The screen is divided into columns, which are divided into windows. A window may represent a file, a directory, or the output from some program. The screen, columns and windows each have a narrow horizontal ``tag'' at the top, which contains some useful text, and for windows contains the name of the window and a "file is modified" indicator.

Text is displayed in a propotionally spaced font by default. There is a built in function to toggle with a monospace font, but there are very few occasions when this is necessary or desirable. In most cases limiting a text editor to monospace fonts is blindly following the hardware limitations of the 1960s.

Text is read and written as UTF8-encoded Unicode, providing some support for editing multi-lingual and scientific text, but remaining backwardly compatible with plain 7-bit ASCII text.

Everything is text

All actions in Wily are through creating and interacting with text on the screen, using the three-button mouse and the keyboard. B1 (mouse button one) selects text, B2 executes text and B3 attempts to ``goto'' the text.

When executing text, there are some built in operations, such as ``Quit'', or ``Del'' which are executed by Wily itself. Otherwise, the command is executed in a subprocess, with output redirected to a window within Wily and input from /dev/null. It is also possible to use the current selection (currently selected text) as input for and/or output of some child program. For example |fmt formats the current selection, >spell checks its spelling and <date replaces it with the current time.

The goto operation used with B3 is polymorphic in that it recognises three different patterns:

If name is a file or directory, open it, otherwise search for the literal name
Search for address in the current window. The address may be a line number, a character number, a regular expression, or two of these, separated by a comma.
Open file and search in it for address

Wily's power derives in part from its general treatment of text. Whether text is found in a file, or directory listing, created by Wily, output by some other program, or typed by the user, it can all be treated the same way. A simple text file may be used as a menu of commands or a simple form of hypertext. Previously typed commands or ``usage'' messages can be edited and executed. There is no need for dialogs, menus, modes, buttons or accelerator keys, just operations on text on the screen.

No wasted user actions

Wily minimizes the number of unnecessary mouse or keyboard actions the user must make. For instance, placing newly created windows is done without needing the user's help, although the user can easily rearrange things if Wily's heuristics aren't acceptable. Wily also makes cutting, pasting, executing and searching for text so easy to do with the mouse that there is no need to retype text already on the screen.

Cutting and pasting text is made particularly convenient using combinations of mouse buttons. To cut text, select it with B1, and while still holding B1, also click B2: this is a B1-B2 chord. To paste text use a B1-B3 chord. This style is unusual, but once it becomes familiar other methods of cutting and pasting seem unbearably slow. Another chord (B2-B1) is used to execute some text with an argument.

To avoid having to position the mouse accurately, a mouse selection of zero length (i.e. a mouse click) is expanded in a ``reasonable'' manner. Clicking with B2 in a word expands to that word, which is then executed. Clicking with B3 in an address (e.g. foo.c:45) expands to that address. Double-clicking with B1 just inside paired braces, brackets or quotes selects the region thus delimited.

Wily's general approach to text as commands and addresses is compounded because these basic functions can be accessed so conveniently. Most operations can be achieved with a single mouse click or mouse combination.


The consistent and general use of text for input and output in Wily makes the combination of its features more than the sum of its parts.

Stepping through an example session might best illustrate this:

Susan has fetched the file frob.tar.Z. She clicks with B1 in the file name, and with B2 in the word untarz. The utility untarz uncompresses and untars the file, verbosely printing file names as it goes. She clicks with B3 on one of the file names, INSTALL, which opens the file. The INSTALL file suggests that she run configure then make. She clicks B2 in each of these words to run the suggested programs, but there's a problem. The make fails when gcc quits with the error message
keyboard.c:4: strings.h: No such file or directory.
She clicks with B3 in the first part of the error message, which opens the file and selects the line. On Susan's system there is a string.h but no strings.h. She removes the last s with a B1-B2 chord. When she modifies the file, Wily sets the ``file modified'' indicator, and adds the word ``Save'' to the tag for this window. Susan clicks B2 on the word Save to write the file, clicks B2 on make again, and she's done.

This whole process uses about ten mouse clicks and no typing.

Connecting Programs to Wily

Wily waits for a program to connect to it using a socket, and then sends and receives messages. The messages can be RPC requests and replies, or ``event'' messages generated by Wily when certain actions happen in windows which a remote program has asked to monitor.

The interface is deliberately at a rather high level. The intent is that Wily will take care of of the details of interaction, with other programs providing the semantics of executing a command, opening a window or searching for an address. This promotes a consistent set of tools and an efficient division of labour, but necessarily at the loss of some generality.

The requests allow the remote program to

A program may ask to be notified when events happen in a particular window. These events are generated when:

When a program is being sent B2 or B3 events, Wily doesn't act on them, merely sends them on. The program may opt to ``send back'' some events which Wily will then act on. Events which modify text, on the other hand, are always handled by Wily, which then may inform the remote program what has happened. In other words, the remote program cannot stop the user modifying any piece of text, although it can repair the text later if it wishes.

The Python interface


This is a very simple interface between Python and the Wily message protocol. It establishes a connection, provides remote procedure calls and queues events until they are requested.

A Connection is initialized with no arguments, and represents the connection to Wily. All the other functions are methods of a connection object.

The Connection has methods to return a list of windows representing all the windows currently open in Wily, to create a new window, and to return the next event from Wily. Windows are represented as integers, which correspond to window identifiers with Wily, and events are represented as tuples.

The Connection has a number of methods which provide operations on Wily windows. These operations allow a program, once it has an identifier for a window, to change its event mask, its name or its ``tools'' (useful text in the window's tag), read or modify some of its text, or simulate a B2 or B3 action.


This is a small Python module which provides a friendlier interface to Wily's functionality.

Example Program Fragment

# Create a window called "hello",and fill it with 
# the text "Hello, world"

import wily
con = wily.Connection()
win = con.win("hello")
con.replace(win, 0,0, "Hello, world\n")

Sample Tools

These are small tools written as proof of concept, to test and refine the message interface, and as templates for other applications.

News reader

This uses Python classes for threading, talking NNTP and reading and writing .newsrc files, and Wily for displaying newsgroups and articles. The program acts on B3 actions on article numbers, and B2 actions on some special function names (e.g. Catch-up, Follow-up) which it also places in the correct tags.

Session save and restore

There are two programs to save and restore the ``state'' of an editing session. The ``save'' program determines from Wily what windows are open, what the current selection is for each, and the full text of windows which don't represent a file or directory. The ``restore'' program connects to Wily and uses the saved information to create and massage windows to hopefully return the session to the original state.


There are some useful programs which require the traditional ``prompt and read a line of input'' interface. Examples include gdb, /bin/sh or /bin/mail. To use these programs, but from within the Wily editing environment, a simple terminal program was written, in C. It is called win.

Win provides standard input and output for its client program, and creates and monitors a Wily window, maintaining an input point. When win sees a carriage return entered after the input point, it sends the text between the input point and the carriage return to the client program. Output coming back from the client program is inserted just before the input point.

Win does not attempt to provide a pseudo tty or work with any programs which attempt to use curses-style screen addressing. However, it works fine for programs such as those mentioned above, and was written with only 230 lines of commented C.

Alternative approaches

Wily's approach to extending the editor is to communicate with other processes using a socket or pipe. Here we examine some alternative strategies, and why Wily doesn't use them.

Build an interpreter into the editor

This is by far the most common design for an extensible editor.

There are a few advantages to this approach. Letting the extension language share the address space of the editor is more efficient than using IPC. The language can also be tailored to provide a close match to the editing requirements.

There are two reasons why this approach was rejected for Wily. The first reason is that it restricts users to a single language, and it often means designing a new (possibly half-baked) language. The second reason is that embedding a language interpreter in the editing environment seemed an unnecessary step towards monolithism and code bloat.

For comparison, below are the sizes of three stripped, dynamically linked executables on the author's sun4d Solaris system:
167264 wily
234272 vi
1873336 xemacs

Link code dynamically

Another approach is to dynamically link extension code with the editor. This is more general and more efficient than the built in interpreter design. CodeWright® from Premia uses this approach in the Microsoft Windows environment.

One problem with this approach is that dynamic linking is not standard on all UNIXes. Another is that one errant code fragment dynamically linked in might damage the integrity of the editor. The result might be lost data, or even worse, data quietly modified in some subtle manner.

When this approach becomes ubiquitously available and more secure, it will be re-examined.


It would seem that ILU and CORBA both provide a ready-made solution to turn an editor into a distributed object server. However, both seemed too heavy-weight for this simple task.

Further Work

There is a strong belief amongst Wily's users and developers that ``creeping featurism'' is evil. Most of the ongoing work will be towards refining existing features, and improving the clarity and correctness of the code. Retaining the ``look and feel'' of Acme is also an important consideration.

There is still room for innovation, though. The message interface is still very young, and may change with the demands of application writers. The author hopes that the Python community will be able to make good use of an editor programmable in Python. Although there is no need for cursor keys to navigate around Wily, they may be added later, although they are a low priority.

Networking and security

Currently programs connect to Wily by writing to a UNIX named pipe. Wily's security relies on this pipe being writable only by its owner. This means Wily can't accept connections directly from remote machines, which would be desirable for some applications. A design which avoids this limitation securely and efficiently has not been decided upon.

Obtaining Wily

Wily is freely available.

The prime source for information about Wily is the WWW page at http://www.cs.su.oz.au/~gary/wily/ The wily distribution contains wilymodule.c, and can be obtained at ftp://ftp.cs.su.oz.au/gary/wily.tgz


The early design and source of Wily owe a lot to Bill Trost. Wily and this paper have also been improved by patches, suggestions and bug reports from Assar, Davor Cubranic, Kyle Dean, Stephen Gallimore, Mark H. Wilkinson, Bjorn Helgaas, Steve Kilbane, Beirne Konarski, Bob Krzaczek, Alberto Nava, Arnold Robbins, Rich Salz, Scott Schwartz, Chris Siebenmann, and Richard Wolff.

Wily builds on the Sam distribution by Rob Pike and Howard Trickey, and originally used libtext by James Farrow. James Farrow also makes available a set of Unicode fonts for X at ftp.cs.su.oz.au/matty/unicode/

Appendix: The Python/Wily Module

con = wily.Con()


Connection objects have no attributes and suport the following methods:

Returns a list of names and Win objects representing the windows currently open.
Return a new window called name
Return the next Event. Note that this method will block until an event is available.
Indicates whether calling Connection.event() would block.
Send event back to Wily, probably because we have no use for it.

The following methods of a connection object act on a window.

Request events for this window.
Cancel request for events for this window.
Set the name of this window.
Set the toolbar for this window.
Read some range from this window, returns a UTF8 string.
replace(id,from,to, string)
Replace some range of window with some other text.
run(id, command)
Makes wily act as if command had been selected with B2 in this window. This can be used to access Wily's built in functions. For example, to delete w, call con.run(w_id, "Del")
Makes wily act as if address had been selected with B3 in this window. Returns a tuple identifying the window and position which are the result of the search.


Events are returned as tuples. Every event has at least two elements, which are a window identifer, and an event type identifier (which is one of wily.GOTO, wily.EXEC, wily.REPLACE or wily.DEL). All of these event types except DEL also have a from, to and string attribute.