May 26, 2024
Charm offensive: Google's Gradient backs this startup to bring more pizzazz to the command line

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A young startup is setting out to transform the command line interface (CLI) into something a little more fitting for the modern age — something a little more glamorous.

Charm is a four-year-old company founded by former Apple, Last.fm, and TweetDeck engineer Toby Padilla, alongside Christian Rocha who formerly served as head of voice at Snap-acquisition Zenly. The duo formed Charm to power next-generation CLIs replete with tools for enhancing their visual appearance, while adding features such as the ability to display text from documents and even store data such as user profiles. And all with an underlying open source ethos.

Charm had previously raised around $4 million in funding spread across various angel and seed rounds, and now the company is adding a further $6 million to its coffers with Google’s VC fund Gradient Ventures leading the charge, supported by Cavalry Ventures, Fuel Capital, Firestreak, and a slew of angel backers.

Chain of command

The command line has long served as a powerful conduit for developers to interact with the operating system using simple text-based commands. Although the graphical user interface (GUI) has gained steam, CLIs remain popular, as they offer more flexibility and speed for developers, while they also consume fewer system resources than GUIs.

“Most developers will use a mix of CLI and GUI tools — the CLI gives developers the ability to compose commands and quickly create solutions to complex problems, where GUIs are limited to solving the small set of use-cases they were specifically designed for,” Padilla explained to TechCrunch.

Moreover, many developer and internet infrastructure tools are essentially CLI-first, including Git and SSH, though there are often GUI clients available too for those that prefer them.

“GUIs can be good for initial discoverability of functionality,” Padilla continued. “When you have a toolbar with icons, it’s easier to see what the functionally of a program is compared to something like a large set of command line flags.”

So while CLIs offer power and flexibility, GUIs bring usability — and Charm is striving to bring the best of these worlds together. For example, Charm has developed the Go framework Bubble Tea for building terminal apps with some GUI goodness brought into the mix, as well as support for mouse control.

“We see TUIs (text-based user interfaces) powered by Bubble Tea as a good way to bring GUI discoverability to the command line,” Padilla said.

Charm: Bubble Tea

Charm: Bubble Tea Image Credits: Charm

Elsewhere, Charm has created a markdown reader called Glow that allows developers to view readme files and similar documentation directly inside the command line.

Charm: Glow

Charm: Glow Image Credits: Charm

But the company has developed all manner of tools to bring more functionality to the command line, including VHS to help developers record screencasts of command line apps for demos and README files; and Pop, which is all about sending emails (replete with attachments) from the command line.

For Pop, Charm partnered with another Gradient Ventures portfolio company called Resend, a developer-focused email platform. And as an aside, Resend CEO Zeno Rocha has also invested in Charm.

Charm: Pop

Charm: Pop Image Credits: Charm

Then there’s Mods, touted as “AI for the command line,” which supports large language models (LLMs) from the likes of OpenAI and open source alternative LocalAI.

For example, a developer could funnel the contents of a code file into Mods and instruct it to “refactor” the code and save the output to a new file.

“We found that LLM-based AI models produced really good markdown, so we wanted to build a simple tool that worked with OpenAI and LocalAI models for use in command pipelines,” Padilla said.

Charm: Mods

Charm: Mods Image Credits: Charm

Show me the money

In terms of business model, Charm is working on an enterprise plan that is currently approaching something close to private beta, though Padilla notes that it’s already being adopted by developers at some fairly large businesses including Amazon’s AWS, Shopify, Nvidia, GitHub, and more.

“These companies are using our libraries in their first party apps,” Padilla said, pointing to examples in GitHub projects from the likes of AWS and Microsoft Azure where Bubble Tea is being used.

Today, Charm claims some eight full-time employees spread across the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and Germany, and with another $6 million in the bank, the startup is well-financed to double down on its recent adoption and add new features to “customize, augment, and improve” the CLI experience for thousands of developers.

Charm isn’t the only company looking to turbo-charge the command line — back in 2019, Microsoft launched a new terminal with support for emojis, Unicode, and East Asian fonts. And then there’s Y Combinator (YC) alum Fig, which has been developing autocomplete functionality for the command line, leading the mighty Amazon to swoop in to buy the startup outright.

So it’s clear that there are attempts from multiple angles to drag the humble CLI into the modern era.

“The command line interface is the front-door for all builders, but the shell and shell scripting hasn’t been improved much since it was first introduced in the 1970s,” Padilla said. “We’re going to be rolling out the next generation of our platform on both the frontend and backend. We’ll also be working on sustainable open source software development and ethical monetization.”

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