Thursday November 17, 2022
Notepad++: Why the World’s Best Software Will Always Be Free
Notepad++ founder’s award-winning open-source text and code editor has been downloaded over 28 million times.
In 1999, Don Ho, a computer science student at the University of Paris, heard about the Free Software Foundation (FSF) movement.
It suggested that software would work better if the code were accessible to the people that used it. Developers would be able to build programs around their own needs without getting caught up in copyright infringements. To achieve this, FSF came up with the GNU General Public License (GPL).
The idea stuck, and in 2003, as a young developer working for another company, Don developed a prototype source code editor written in C++ to substitute the Java-based tool the company was using that was underperforming. He did what any FSF-minded developer would do and proposed the prototype to his boss as a way to sidestep the problems he saw.
The proposal was refused. Don continued to work on the prototype, and on the 25th of November 2003, he made it available on Sourceforge as Notepad++. Nearly twenty years later, it is one of the world’s most popular source-code editors and boasts around eighty thousand daily downloads.
The issues with the old editor the company was using were not just related to the limitations of Java. It also lacked the functionality that Don wanted in a genuinely needs-based source code editor.
The ideas that set Notepad++ apart at the time might sound obvious now. Still, features like autosave, tabbing, and find & replace – elements that make a developer’s job so much easier were not commonplace at the time.
Inspired by the FSF, Notepad++ has been open-source since day one. Still, Notepad++ is not just an open-source project but, more specifically, “free software,” which gives people the legal right and freedom to modify the code.
Allowing the community into the creative process has driven the program’s success, and in 2011, the influential blog Lifehacker crowned Notepad++ as “The Best Programming Text Editor for Windows.”
Developing an Open-source Mentality
KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is the ethos Don follows as he develops Notepad++. Still, since Notepad++ has so many features, the biggest challenge is ensuring top-class functionality while keeping the editor simple for use.
The only solution is to let the community decide which features they like and don’t by allowing them to edit the program.
It’s one of Don’s core beliefs. The idea that he can’t do whatever he wants is challenging, but his belief in the open-source mentality always wins out in the end. It reminds him that responding to the community is best for the project and the only way to keep complex ideas on track.
That belief would be vindicated in 2014, when Lifehacker proclaimed Notepad++ the “Most Popular Text Editor,” as evidenced by the sheer size of its dedicated community of developers and the efficiency and simplicity of its creative model.
Contributions to Notepad++ are centralized on GitHub. Coders fix bugs or implement features with pull requests; Don then accepts or rejects them. And that’s how the community refines the product and guides the project in the right direction.
It’s a model that has worked cleanly over the years, and Don stands by its success. He believes that open source is the most efficient method for software development, and he’s confident that in the future, there will be more and more open-source projects, especially for commercial use.
By the Community, for the Community
For Don, the time commitment to developing Notepad++ has always been the most challenging aspect. As always, the answer to his and Notepad++’s problems lay within the developer community.
“Without the Notepad++ community, it wouldn’t have become what it is today,” he says. Having spent a lot of time with the people involved, he realized that the project was not manageable by one person alone. So, instead of controlling the community, Don prefers to guide it by providing the infrastructure and workflow that allows it to manage itself.
As for keeping every user and contributor happy? “Well, it’s impossible,” he says, “but at least I do my best.” His best, however, is an exceptional standard. Today, Notepad++ supports 78 coding languages and has been downloaded over 28 million times.
Now, after two decades, Notepad++ is still completely free and one of the best source code editors available online.
Hosting and Distributing World Beating Software
Notepad++, like VLC, GIMP, or Audacity, has become a staple of the open-source software movement and is known for offering high-quality performance for free. Distributing the world’s most popular text editor requires a reliable, highly flexible, and, most importantly, secure central location.
Sourceforge, the original place to access Notepad++, had been repeatedly compromised.
To avoid running the risk of both real and reputational damage to the Notepad++ project, Don decided that the only answer to his problem was to build a website of his own.
In the beginning, friends took care of hosting the website, but in 2019 Don moved the website to Hostinger. “I tried some hosts and found that Hostinger is the most featured, ergonomic, and affordable.”
It stands as a testament to the lightweight nature of Notepad++ that a website supporting software as popular as Notepad++ runs perfectly on Hostinger’s Business Shared plan. And he is sure that the move to Hostinger was the right one for his project. “The features of Hostinger are rich, the technical support is proactive and efficient, and the stability is amazing. Once the website is set up, it works like a charm.”
With the right distribution platform, supported by the right hosting, and a committed community, Don has slowly learned to let go of his desire to control the process from start to finish, trust in the developers, and enjoy coding an excellent product for himself and everyone around the world.
His advice: “You don’t need to have the ambition to make your project popular or successful; just enjoy it. That way, your project could be a success, but even if it isn’t, at least you’ll have fun and get to enjoy the most interesting part – coding and managing open-source software.”