September 10, 2002

Bluefish: My favorite Linux HTML editor

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -

It has been at least a year since I last wrote about Bluefish, and the program has come a long way since then. The latest version out now is .7.2, but I'm still using .7.1 because it's the most recent version available in a Mandrake-specific RPM that automagically adds Bluefish to my program menu, and this version is plenty good enough for me for the moment.
GPL-licensed Bluefish has become an excellent "production tool" for those of who earn our living writing for Web sites, full of little "speed you up" features. For example, I put in the hyperlink in the previous paragraph by highlighting the word "Bluefish," clicking on an "anchor" icon in the Bluefish menu bar, then pasting the URL into a little dialog box. Instant link! There's another icon that makes "mailto" links just as easily and quickly. Want bold text? Highlight and click. Italic? Ditto. Insert an image? Click. Want to create your own custom "click on" routines? Easy as pie. And, of course, it's easy to create keyboard shortcuts for all of these functions.

Now, I'm a writer, so I primarily look at Bluefish from a writer's point of view. I rarely use more than a fraction of its capabilities. To me, the wordcount utility, added since I first started using this program (partially at my instigation), is more important than the ability to rapidly create or import stylesheets. I rarely (like never) write or import javascript, and I have no current need for WML. I don't create forms, I don't make frames, and I don't even make tables very often. But Bluefish can do all of this, no problem, with a click (or keyboard shortcut) here and click there.

Customize Bluefish to your heart's content

My eyes are poor, so I like to use a much larger displayed font than most people. This is easy to do in Bluefish. I have a couple of external programs I like to call up now and then, and I've added them, no sweat. I have some custom "strings" of HTML code I use over and over (notably the ones I use to format Slashdot interviews), and I have them all preloaded as one-click routines so I can save time and (carpal-inducing) keystrokes.

Some Bluefish users are writers like me, but most are Web designers and programmers. Indeed, the top blurb on the Bluefish home page says, "Bluefish is a GTK HTML editor for the experienced web designer or programmer." I have watched others -- including a few experienced Web designers and programmers -- use Bluefish, and each one seems to have customized it heavily to suit his or her own taste and needs, to the point where it seems we are all using different programs that all just happen to say "bluefish 0.7 HTML editor" in the left end of the navbar.

This is not to say Bluefish requires extensive customization before you can use it. The default setting are fine. I'm sure many people use Bluefish right out of the box (well, out of the "download" anyway) and are perfectly happy with it. But after you've used the program for a bit, and you start to wonder, "Couldn't I make this bit of work a little faster if ..." and you find that you can, the temptation to mess around with a setting here or there becomes nearly irresistible -- and you might as well yield to it, because you will make Bluefish better for your specific needs and work patterns almost every time you do.


Those of us who work on tight deadlines have a tendency to prize stability over almost anything else in the software we use daily. If you're rushing to get a story in or a Web page redesign finished and you have people breathing over your shoulder, waiting for you to finish, you do not need to watch your work suddenly disappear from your screen. If that happens more than once, it is a very human thing to throw things at your computer, then delete the offending program from it and never use that program again.

I made the decision never to use Windows again in the wake of just such a work-loss meltdown. There I was, with a brand-new computer freshly-loaded with (then newly released) Windows 98, frantically banging out a story that needed to be in by 4:30. At 4:16 my screen froze. Yes, I had most of what I had written saved, but I still lost some paragraphs, and worse than that I lost time! It takes time for a reboot that includes a hard drive scan. "The hell with this Windows crap," I yelled internally, and from that day on Linux was no longer my "play with it" operating system, but the only one I was willing to use for critical, money-earning, feed-the-family work.

I have tried many text and HTML editors and word processors for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Most of them have crashed on me at one point or another. Yes, I know we shouldn't always blame the application, especially in Windows, but if one application crashes for me and another one doesn't, you can guess which one I am going to use -- and which one goes into the bit bucket.

Obviously, Bluefish does not crash for me while writing text or HTML. You can tell that it doesn't because I'm using it. In fact, I think I will go out on a limb here and say Bluefish, in its more recent versions, is one of only two
editor-type programs that have never lost work for me. (The other is NEdit.)

What's not to like

The Bluefish icon for Mandrake, which is the only Bluefish icon I have ever seen, is so light that it fades into the background of my grey KDE panel. It's time for a better -- one could even say bluer -- Bluefish icon.

Greyness. One thing I am tired of with Linux is that so much of the software seems to be so grey. I keep looking at Bluefish and thinking, "Gee, this would look nice if the borders and things that are grey now could be black. Or maybe blue. Or something. Or maybe some checkboxes so I could choose different colors on different days, depending on the weather and my mood." I would not say this is a huge programming priority for Bluefish or any other piece of productivity software, but I think more attention paid to esthetics would make Linux more interesting to people who don't use it yet, not to mention more colorful for those of us who already use it.

Screen flicker. On an old, slow, RAM-short computer with a not-so-hot video card -- like mine -- almost every keystroke seems to make the type in the Bluefish edit window "flicker" a bit. I have found that turning off syntax highlighting makes the problem nearly go away. I only mention the flicker as a "Bluefish thing" because other programs I use don't do this, and I haven't really noticed it when using Bluefish on newer, faster computers. Perhaps the GTK2 port of Bluefish, which the developers are already working on, will cure this. Or perhaps I'll get a better computer, so at least I don't notice this problem any more. :)

Beyond these nitpicks, I can't really think of anything I don't like about Bluefish. It is an excellent example of how a multinational group of talented programmers can produce a piece of work under the GPL that is at least as good as any commercial program, for any operating system, that performs similar functions.


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