While learning about and configuring weechat this evening, I noticed a lot of complexity and unsatisfying tradeoffs related to its UI, its mouse support, and its built-in window system. Got to wondering what I'd do differently, if I wrote my own IRC client, to avoid those problems.
The first thing I realized is, it is not a good idea to think about writing your own IRC client. Danger will robinson..
So, let's generalize. This blog post is not about designing an IRC client, but about exploring simpler ways that something like an IRC client might handle its UI, and perhaps designing something general-purpose that could be used by someone else to build an IRC client, or be mashed up with an existing IRC client.
What any modern IRC client needs to do is display various channels to the user. Maybe more than one channel should be visible at a time in some kind of window, but often the user will have lots of available channel and only want to see a few of them at a time. So there needs to be an interface for picking which channel(s) to display, and if multiple windows are shown, for arranging the windows. Often that interface also indicates when there is activity on a channel. The most recent messages from the channel are displayed. There should be a way to scroll back to see messages that have already scrolled by. There needs to be an interface for sending a message to a channel. Finally, a list of users in the channel is often desired.
Modern IRC clients implement their own UI for channel display, windowing, channel selection, activity notification, scrollback, message entry, and user list. Even the IRC clients that run in a terminal include all of that. But how much of that do they need to implement, really?
Suppose the user has a tabbed window manager, that can display virtual terminals. The terminals can set their title, and can indicate when there is activity in the terminal. Then an IRC client could just open a bunch of terminals, one per channel. Let the window manager handle channel selection, windowing (naturally), and activity notification.
For scrollback, the IRC client can use the terminal's own scrollback buffer, so the terminal's regular scrollback interface can be used. This is slightly tricky; can't use the terminal's alternate display, and have to handle the UI for the message entry line at the bottom.
That's all the UI an IRC client needs (except for the user list), and most of that is already implemented in the window manager and virtual terminal. So that's an elegant way to make an IRC client without building much new UI at all.
But, unfortunately, most of us don't use tabbed window managers (or tabbed terminals). Such an IRC client, in a non-tabbed window manager, would be a many-windowed mess. Even in a tabbed window manager, it might be annoying to have so many windows for one program.
So we need fewer windows. Let's have one channel list window, and one channel display window. There could also be a user list window. And there could be a way to open additional, dedicated display windows for channels, but that's optional. All of these windows can be seperate virtual terminals.
A potential problem: When changing the displayed channel, it needs to output a significant number of messages for that channel, so that the scrollback buffer gets populated. With a large number of lines, that can be too slow to feel snappy. In some tests, scrolling 10 thousand lines was noticiably slow, but scrolling 1 thousand lines happens fast enough not to be noticiable.
(Terminals should really be faster at scrolling than this, but they're still writing scrollback to unlinked temp files.. sigh!)
An IRC client that uses multiple cooperating virtual terminals, needs a way to start up a new virtual terminal displaying the current channel. It could run something like this:
x-terminal-emulator -e the-irc-client --display-current-channel
That would communicate with the main process via a unix socket to find out what to display.
Or, more generally:
x-terminal-emulator -e connect-pty /dev/pts/9
connect-pty would simply connect a pty device to the terminal, relaying
IO between them. The calling program would allocate the pty and do IO to
it. This may be too general to be optimal though. For one thing, I think
that most curses libraries have a singleton terminal baked into them, so it
might be hard to have a single process control cursors on multiple pty's.
And, it might be innefficient to feed that 1 thousand lines of scrollback
through the pty and copy it to the terminal.
Less general than that, but still general enough to not involve writing an IRC client, would be a library that handled the irc-client-like channel display, with messages scrolling up the terminal (and into the scrollback buffer), a input area at the bottom, and perhaps a few other fixed regions for status bars and etc.
I wonder what other terminal applications could be simplified/improved by using multiple terminals? One that comes to mind is mutt, which has a folder list, a folder view, and an email view, that all are shoehorned, with some complexity, into a single terminal.