RIP Bram Moolenaar: Coding world mourns Vim creator
Obit Dutch free software developer Bram Moolenaar has died. He was 62. His Vim text editor is probably one of the single most widely used Linux programs of all time.
His family on Saturday announced his passing, appropriately enough on the Vim-announce mailing list. It has resulted in an outpouring of grief across many techie forums and some moving tributes. Moolenaar was a private man, known to the world mainly through his work.
Vim was not the only program he wrote, but it was certainly the most widely known. A core part of the Unix credo is that everything is a file – and specifically, in most cases, it's a text file. And text editors are among the most important core parts of any Unix-like operating system.
Vim was the default text editor included with most Linux distributions. As such, Bram was the person whose code has probably touched more people than any other Linux tool except for the kernel itself — which nobody except programmers directly interact with anyway.
The other thing for which he was widely known and respected was his charity work. Since 1995, Vim has been "charityware." If you open the editor without specifying a file, in the opening text, it displays the following message:
~ Help poor children in Uganda! ~ type :help iccf<enter> for information</enter>
The ICCF to which it refers is the International Child Care Fund Holland, which Moolenaar founded after visiting Uganda to do voluntary work in 1993. He continued to act as the organization's treasurer for the rest of his life. In addition to the ICCF, any income which he received as sponsorship for development of Vim went to the charity as well.
The charity supports a school for AIDS orphans at the Kibaale Community Centre in southern Uganda, not far from Lake Victoria. Moolenaar worked on the school's water supply system, and even moved to Uganda for a year, during which time he worked on Vim on a purpose-bought laptop powered by a car battery. The ICCF sends some 99.5 percent of its income to Kibaale. As the ICCF page about the school says: KCC works from a Christian base. Help is given to children of any religion.
Moolenaar last visited the school in 2020, very shortly before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and his report contains many photos from the trip. He was also a talented photographer, as evinced by the gallery on his homepage.
As Moolenaar's own introduction to Vim describes, the program began in 1988 as an Amiga application and was first released in 1991. Moolenaar started with a port of a tiny Vi-like editor for the Atari ST called Stevie. In 2000, he wrote up the story, which describes the early days. You can hear him talk about it in the video below.
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I am still deeply shocked and sad by the sudden passing by of Bram. The Vim project will certainly miss him and his guidance. I am impressed by his dedication to spending more than 30 years on a project, and I am grateful for having had the chance to work with him.
We do have access to the Vim homepage and the Vim repository, and other access is currently being worked on.
Bram Moolenaar – the surname is a Dutch word for Miller – was born in Lisse in 1961. To quote his own modest words from his popular essay Seven habits of effective text editing [PDF]: "He graduated at the technical university of Delft as a computer technician. Now he mainly works on software, but still knows how to handle a soldering iron."
His other projects included the A-A-P build tool and the Zimbu programming language. From 2006 to 2021, he worked at Google in Zürich, partly on Google Calendar but also on Vim. He reported health problems in October 2022, which can be seen as a gap followed by a gradual decline in his GitHub contributions. His last comment on the Vim users mailing list was on July 6.
He died on August 3. As his family explained, Moolenaar was "suffering from a medical condition that progressed quickly over the last few weeks."
We can think of few better commemorations for a life's work than the many children he helped, as well as the huge worldwide community of people who are grateful for one of the most-loved editors that has ever existed. ®
From snow to sand
When Moolenaar retired from Google in October 2021, we reached out to him to ask what his plans were. Though Moolenaar got back to us, his response sadly, due to other pressures, didn't make it into a full story. This is what he told us back then:
Yes, after working at Google for 15 years I considered it enough, and combined with plans to move to a more pleasant climate, decided to retire to Tenerife. No more snow shoveling!
I joined Google when it still had a bit of a startup feeling. In Zurich there were only just over a hundred engineers, I knew most of them and we had talks where most would join in and ask questions. Now there are between 4,000 and 5,000 people in Google Zurich, spread over a dozen buildings.
It has also become much more formal, which is no surprise with growth like this. It's not bad, but it is certainly less fun. I see many people paying more attention to their next promotion than keeping the users happy. I am much more interested in creating user-friendly software and somehow that isn't always rewarded.
I do plan to spend more time on Vim. But I'm currently busy with the move, fixing up the house and settling in. Thus no immediate effect. In fact, my inbox is a bit full right now.
He continued that he wanted to work on a Vim 9 script release next. "There are still quite a few details to get right, add more tests and make sure that we don't regret choices later, when we need further changes to be backward compatible," he told us.
"That will keep me busy for several months, I haven't yet though of what is next."