The traditional IDEs should go on a “diet” program

These days I do a lot of rapid prototyping, turning around small but fully working apps fast is my equivalent of PowerPoint slides. As you do this, you realise just how much of a resource hog the integrated development environments (IDEs) have become (always have been?). And there is really no good excuse for this. Sure, computers are getting faster and cheaper, and the traditional IDEs seem intent to make sure you never realise the benefits of that.

I’ve worked with many popular IDEs over the years, the ones I’ve used most are Eclipse and IntelliJ IDEA, and Microsoft Visual Studio (memories of Powerbuilder and Borland IDE are still there). The one constant thing I’ve noticed with IDEs is that user waiting time is steady, it is getting longer in some cases, not shorter. Aside from code refactoring features there’s nothing fundamentally new to these tools. Somehow you always need the top of the range computer to run traditional IDEs, and if you’re running anything else at the same time such as a word processor, or a database then you might end up spending a lot of time waiting for your computer to give you control.

Why are traditional IDEs lagging behind (actually hindering) the performance gains afforded by the hardware evolution? I think one possible cause is that these IDEs are still failing to become truly modular. Various efforts to tune the IDE into understanding the user role remain too timid, you get a little less clutter on the toolbars and windows here and there, but the start/stop time and various frequent activities remain painfully slow, because the stuff is just too heavy for no particularly useful reason. This topic actually ties in to my rant about virtualisation still failing the desktop power user, more on that on another blog posting.

On the other hand, text editor centric IDEs are quite nippy. Take TextMate, Emacs, VI, you get to work much quicker and spend most of your time doing work rather than waiting for the tool to complete some task. These tools do offer code completion and search, what you really miss is perhaps the refactoring and interactive debugging capabilities. And I think those aspects are becoming less relevant, test-driven development in a good agile process makes debugging unnecessary for the best part of the development lifecycle. If these practices are combined with something like behaviour driven development increases the odds of producing good quality code. The programming language really helps if it’s less verbose, in that sense I’m starting to think of Java as the new Cobol really. Languages that are based on functional programming are such a tremendous help in thinking clearly, writing less code and spending less time with infrastructure stuff.

The emergence of web browser based IDEs such as Mozilla ACE might provide a serious challenge to the traditional IDEs, and that would be a good thing.