Once upon a time, Microsoft Word reigned supreme over a kingdom inhabited by the world's most boring software platforms: word processors. But thanks to people like Jason Chen, the 27-year old computer scientist behind Quill, the age of the word processor is finally coming to an end. At its most basic level, Quill is an open-source text editor. It offers many of the same functions as Microsoft Word or Google Documents, like collaborative document editing, but with one crucial difference: you don't need to have all of its functions.
Unlike Google Docs or Word, Quill allows the user to decide which functions of a word processor makes the most sense for his or her use case. As Chen points out, Microsoft Word and Google Documents have tons of bells and whistles, but the vast majority of users only use a small portion of these features.
In the age of user-oriented design, Chen felt as though this one-size-fits-all approach to text editing was outmoded. Users should be able to hack their text editor to use it as they saw fit. But with proprietary text editors like Word, it's an all or nothing deal—you either use the editor as Microsoft intended or you don't use it at all.
For Chen, this problem was a very real one while he was developing his Y-Combinator backed app, Stypi. Stypi was built as a bare bones collaborative code editor and quickly gained traction as a medium for interviewing coders at big tech firms like Apple and Facebook.
"There were good open source projects for code editors out there at the time but there wasn't really a good one for general rich text," Chen told Motherboard. "All the good editors were all pretty proprietary, meaning you couldn't just use their editor for your own product. So we had to build our own text editor and that was the genesis of Quill."
When Stypi was acquired by the cloud computing company Salesforce in 2012, the text editor that was built for it came along with the deal. Yet during negotiations with Salesforce's technical leadership, Chen and his colleagues were able to convince them to leave the text editor portion of Stypi open source. Once this was agreed to, the text editor took on a life of its own on Github as Quill.
According to Chen, the main advantage of Quill over other text editors is that it is fully-customizable. As the first rich text editor to offer its API to developers, anyone is free to mess around with the software's functionality at a granular level, fine tuning it to their needs. As Chen sees it, this is the future of word processing more generally—it seems like every platform has its own text editor these days, whether that's Medium, Wordpress, or LinkedIn, which recently adopted Quill as its platform's text editor.
"If you think about the types of content you produce in a word processor, given any sort of type of content there is probably a specialized type of app that does it better these days," Chen said. "I think in the future, we're going to use general word processing less and less because there's always going to be a better tool that is specialized for you. With Quill, you can always specialize the text editor for your specific use-case."
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.