Why 50 bucks for a programmer's editor is cheap

Chris Granger, author of the Noir web framework for Clojure, announced Light Table recently. Light Table is a fairly radical rethinking of how source-driven programming should happen at the editor and IDE level, to allow programmers to visualise and assemble programs.

Initially targetting Clojure and JavaScript, it introduces a trio of concepts that hold a lot of promise, at least for me: see your results almost instantly; organisation of your code view at the function level, not the file level; automatic visualisation of related code. Those things aren’t the only tricks in its repertoire, so go take a look for yourself.

The project exists on Kickstarter, where you can help fund the development at various monetary levels, now starting at $15. $50 was the initial price for that first tier of contribution. $15 is enough to get you a license for Light Table on its release and your name in lights in the contributors list.

The announcement obviously sparked some discussion among developers and what stood out for me, at least on HN, was the trickle of people moaning that the $50 that Granger initially set on Kickstarter was far too much for a license, at least based on the introduction to the product that was shown.

The mind boggles.

As a programmer, your primary code editor and program visualisation tool is going to be a place you spend a large proportion of your time. If you do it for a living, it’s going to be the tool that helps you generate a large proportion of your income.

It’s true that a vast majority of the code editors and IDEs don’t cost any money, including those from Microsoft and Apple, but there are multiple notable exceptions which mean charging for programmer’s editors isn’t new, and nor is there any agreed price structure around the tools that let people get away with saying $50 is too much after a cursory, non-interactive, look.

Even if you’re a hobbyist programmer or your programming work doesn’t generate any revenue, paying for tools that make you more productive or let you reason about your programs in better ways still seems like an excellent investment to me.

The biggest rub is that programmers should instinctively understand the value of good software, financial or otherwise. For any of Granger’s peers to decree that $50 is too much to pay for a single user license is nothing short of insulting, especially since the alternative figures offered were even more arbitrary than those against Granger’s initial Kickstarter tiers.

Investing — even just $50 — in any tool that makes you better at your job, no matter what you’re doing, will tend to pay off heavily in the long-run. And since it’s software in this case, you’re highly likely to be able to try before you buy, making the investment incredibly risk-free.

In fact, it turns out Light Table’s core will be completely free. $50 (or even $15 now) might sound expensive in that context, but in this case you’d also be helping fund the development for programming and programmers as a whole.

The end game of realising concepts like Light Table seems to be that we all get better at this stuff; financially investing a small amount towards that goal is valuable and largely risk-free, at least in my humble opinion, despite the seemingly radical concepts that Granger is pushing for in a programmer’s editor and program visualisation tool.