I want to learn Emacs or Vi. I don't like modal editing but Vi is ubiquitous and looks more useful for emergencies. What are the reasons why Emacs is not preinstalled in most distributions?

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    It should be easy enough to install it yourself. Apr 5, 2015 at 0:47
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    Obviously, because it is inferior to the ONE TRUE EDITOR... And also because it is not part of the POSIX spec.
    – jasonwryan
    Apr 5, 2015 at 1:02
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    Vi was written for BSD Unix as has been around since the 70s; GNU Emacs was written for the GNU project, and has been around since the 80s. Vi is seen as a standard Unix system utility, while emacs is more of an add on application.
    – teppic
    Apr 5, 2015 at 2:16
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    licensing. From man sh in Rationale: The community of emacs proponents was adamant that the full emacs editor not be standardized because they were concerned that an attempt to standardize this very powerful environment would encourage vendors to ship strictly conforming versions lacking the extensibility required by the community.
    – mikeserv
    Apr 5, 2015 at 3:25
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    Because there are many people who don't like emacs (I regard it as an example of how to build the worst possible editor that still works :-)), so why consume disk space? Of course this also begs the questions: 1) Why isn't my preferred editor installed by default? and 2) Why isn't there a way to remove all the other stuff I'll never use, such as error messages in languages I don't read?
    – jamesqf
    Apr 5, 2015 at 4:00

2 Answers 2


The direct answer is probably that vi is part of the POSIX standard (as @jasonwryan also mentioned in a comment), as well as the Single UNIX Specification. As such, anything that calls itself POSIX-compliant probably includes something vi-like, and anything that wants to call itself UNIX has to, or you don't get certified. Not just vi, but the related line editor ex and the scripting language involved are also part of these standards. emacs is not part of the standard, so it is not included.

As for why this is so, there are several reasons. For one, emacs is far, far bigger and more complicated than vi. There's a whole LISP in there, among other things. The part of POSIX that decides this was written in 1992, when you would need a very beefy computer for emacs. I've seen a vi run on Minix on a 286 semi-decently. And while it doesn't really matter all that much for a modern desktop, on embedded systems it still very much does. Its size and versatility also makes it harder to check it for security holes, which might be an issue in certain applications where security is imperative. Basically, everything that might make it a better desktop application makes it a worse system component.

If you're up for a history lesson, you could also say that vi is closer to the Unix philosophy: do one thing and do it well. Indeed, vi sprang from ex, and has always been an Unix program. emacs sprang from a vastly different world: it was originally built on top of TECO, written for the ITS operating system. It was only ported to Unix in the 1980s, as ITS was dying out. This makes emacs in effect an immigrant from a very different culture, while vi is a native.

Interestingly, both emacs and vi first came out in 1976, so it's not just that vi is older.

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    "This makes emacs in effect an immigrant from a very different culture, while vi is a native." Beautifully put. +1
    – jasonwryan
    Apr 5, 2015 at 3:31
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    It is probably no longer the case that "emacs is far, far bigger and more complicated than vi.", at least in the current most popular incarnation of vi, namely vim. There is currently an entire SE site devoted solely to vi and its avatars, including vim. Apr 5, 2015 at 9:24
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    @FaheemMitha: vim is still a lot smaller than emacs. At least the ones you get from Debian's repository, the emacs executable is five times as large as the vim one. It also has more dependencies. But that's just one particular implementation. There's a serviceable vi in BusyBox, you can find it running on modems and such. It's not very full-featured, but it is obviously still vi. You could not do that with emacs and still call it emacs.
    – marinus
    Apr 6, 2015 at 16:46
  • @marinus good points. Apr 6, 2015 at 16:48
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    My question was put on hold as primarily opinion-based. I think it's not opinion-based and you proved it giving an objective and complete answer :)
    – user109218
    Apr 7, 2015 at 1:48

This is not how it works.

The choice of packages installed by default is typically driven by practical needs. There is no single practical reason to add particularly emacs into a default installation, unless you are installing a distribution specifically focused on emacs users, if there is anything like that at all.

A typical linux distribution by default installs a minimal system plus what the userbase is expected to use (very often a graphical desktop, firefox, libreoffice and a couple of tools). If emacs is not part of the minimal system, it doesn't make sense to have it in the default installation.

A minimal system is there to allow a power user (administrator) to run the system, perform basic configuration tasks using the command line, and install whatever he wants.

There is certainly need for a text editor in such a minimal system, as you may need to edit configuration files. A good minimal candidate is nano as it's both easy to use and very small in footprint, therefore you will find it in minimal systems of most distributions nowadays. Another good candidate is a simple implementation of vi because, as others mentioned, it's the standard editor on POSIX systems. That is why minimal systems typically contain those two, sometimes only one of them.

An entirely wrong choice would be emacs which is not minimal, not easy to use as nano and not standard as vi. Another rather poor choice would be a full installation of vim. Those are tools that belong to full installations ranging from your complete home setup with your favourite editor to university setups for shared computers with a choice of installed tools for a wide range of users.