>Beware the IDEs? Not so much

>Whether to run an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) in a browser or not can be a surprisingly emotive subject. The majority of developers, if they do not already have it, want a well appointed workstation running Visual Studio (for .NET), Eclipse (for Java), Dreamweaver (for JavaScript/HTML/CSS) or similar. They baulk at the idea of running a browser-based IDE despite building browser-based applications and clear advantages to working in this way. It is worth logically and dispassionately looking at the situation.

Key advantages are:

1) Portability. Developers can work from anywhere with a web connection. Does this really happen? Offshore developers will typically have a work desktop and maybe a personal laptop. They may also come onshore for a short period and use a client desktop. If they work through an outsourcer/consultancy they may have another. This counts but it is a Dropbox like aspect of portability. Its main advantage is in supporting those lifestyle situations; when you were not scheduled to develop but – thinking about it – you can; either to get ahead or to react to real time issues – even when you are on vacation, travelling or visiting friends. There are also humanitarian reasons for being able to learn a trade and contribute without having to own even a $100 laptop but let us save that for a later post.
2) Collaboration. Developers can let others debug their code by sharing it via unique URL. Anyone navigating to that link will receive a separate, fully modifiable and executable version of the code. That means no API version inconsistencies come compile time. Real-time collaborative coding is also easier.
3) Efficiency. Hours and on larger projects – days are wasted in setting-up workstations and supporting environments e.g. source control/configuration management at the start of each project. Even if it has been done several times before, at-some-point it will fail because there are just too many variables on a desktop. This just goes away.
4) Cost. Older workstations can be used since compilation and anything else heavy is performed on the server. Cost also improved by collaboration and efficiency (2 and 3 above).

Key disadvantages are:

1) Usability. The browser is not perceived as being rich enough to accommodate a responsive editor, allow class/library management and debug. It is also impracticable to design and test a GUI due to the greater drag/drop precision required.
2) Connectivity. You need to be connected to the Internet in order to run your IDE and therefore develop. This limits your portability (1 above).

There are other points on both sides but above are the key ones. Let us hold those two disadvantages up to the tiniest bit of scrutiny:

1) Usability. Large text file editing in a responsive (next to no latency) way (the main criticism) can now be achieved using HTML5 Canvas/JavaScript. See Bespin and also Kodingen (extending Bespin and integrating with other services) for examples of this using Python/PHP/ROR. See CodeRun for an example of full-on code management using .NET/JavaScript. They are both free, quick and have clean efficient interfaces. Bespin is more of a work-in-progress and does not yet support all browsers though. GUI design is admittedly more of an issue right now but:
a. People already successfully use graphical editors in a browser e.g. Splashup, SUMO Paint and the recently Google acquired Picnick.
b. HTML5 adoption is affording more options here.
c. In both consumer and enterprise spaces, we are moving toward a widget-based UX making designing GUIs from scratch less common.
2) Connectivity. By this – offline development is meant i.e. enabling those circumstances where the developer is using a laptop (since if they were using a desktop surely it would be connected to a network?) and they are in an area of no Wi-Fi coverage (since otherwise they would have network access?). Granted this is a situation that occurs but consider further that this also means:
a. There are no collaboration or research possibilities available (no IM/no Google). If you get stuck when developing or need to clarify a technical point – you’re on your own.
b. You need a single professional and automated solution that synchronises all code, images, configuration files, media (that has previously been unit and integration tested and checked in) and also synchronises test data and potentially business rules (since it is good practice to keep these out of code). Either it will synchronise actual data/business rules in which case you need high grade encryption on your laptop (as you are likely using customer data) or your solution needs to de-sensitize the data/business rules somehow (and you need to have agreed this process with any customer). What kind of developers will be happy with these two restrictions? Only sole developers working on their own project.

Staying with the logical analysis of this, there are four decent reasons in favour of widespread use of browser-based IDEs and two against. There is also enough mitigation to mostly address the two negatives. There is clearly a significant net gain to be made. Side points around “developers won’t stand for it”, “Development is an art (it’s not!)” or “you just do not understand” etc. are emotional and really do not have a place in the decision. It is understandable (in a carpenter cherishing his chisel kind of way) but this noise is a real contributory factor as to why browser-based IDE have not made more of an impact to-date.

When their new OS comes out later this year, are Google really going to say – buy Chrome laptops, they can do everything your regular laptop can – unless you are developing? Given their long developer-friendliness; this would appear a peculiar move. Unless of course it is precisely because they are developer-friendly; that they will pander to populist developer belief and treat them as artisans needing powerful magical workstations? If they do this though – they risk confusing consumers and certainly the non-developing IT community as to their strategy at a time when they are already perplexed by what is happening with Chrome OS, Chrome and Android as a run-time environment.

Google have a new programming language – Go which currently needs OSX or Linux. Like the majority of languages today, it is C-based. It has been out for nearly a year but has not received a great deal of press. It will need a differentiator other than speed to compete (how many web applications really have a processor bottleneck these days?). Surely there is an opportunity to build a browser-based IDE for Go and enable a new generation of more casual (but also more open) developers around the world?


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