Should Emacs Packages Self Configure?

Update 2013-06-01: I ultimately decided that Skewer should not modify any mode hooks automatically. Instead the major mode hooks can be configured by putting (skewer-setup) in your initialization file. This function is designed to play well with autoloading, so using it won’t increase your startup time.

There’s a discussion happening on a Skewer issue on GitHub: Problems with skewer-css autoload. The issue was opened by Steve Purcell. Right now Skewer’s CSS minor mode is enabled by default in less-css-mode, which is, of course, incompatible with the minor mode. It’s enabled because less-css-mode is derived from css-mode, so it runs all of css-mode’s hooks.

There are actually two separate problems here.

Steve is telling me that this auto-configuration is a bad idea; it so often causes these sorts of messes. The gist of his argument is that installing a package is separate from enabling a package. It’s up to the user to decide how and when they want to use a package. Steve maintains a number of popular Emacs packages and, even more importantly, he’s one of the MELPA maintainers. He knows this stuff much better than I do. He even used to share my current opinion up until two months ago when someone changed his mind.

On the other hand, I really dislike when software has such awful defaults that it’s unusable without first configuring it. Skewer’s case wouldn’t be too bad since it can be enabled manually without editing any configuration, but practical use would require that users configure Skewer in their startup files. It would also make it harder for users to discover Skewer’s features. They might not otherwise even be aware there are CSS and HTML minor modes! If the concern is separating installation and activation, package.el does have a variable, package-load-list, for this purpose, though using it isn’t very convenient.

Right now I’m stuck in this dilemma like a deer caught in the headlights. Formal packages are a very new thing for Emacs, so there doesn’t seem to be a community consensus on this issue yet. I really like when the packages I install behave like Skewer does now (i.e. nrepl.el) so I don’t need to configure them. But I would also be easily frustrated if that configuration magic was getting in my way. This particular annoyance happens to me outside of Emacs often enough (i.e. Chromium), though it’s worse because it generally can’t easily be fixed like in Emacs.

I’m still trying to make up my mind about this. If you have an opinion on the matter I’d like to hear it. You can leave a comment here, or much better, leave your comment on the issue on GitHub. It’s not going to come down to a vote or anything like that. I just want to get a feel for how people expect Emacs packages to work.

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Chris Wellons