Thursday, September 16, 2010

Are IDEs bloated by design?

By IDE, i obviously mean, Integrated Development Environment. A tool every programmer out there knows of, and most of us use it. But first, before I start with the topic I just want to make one thing clean - I am not starting another flame war about which IDE is less bloated or more powerful or whatever. The point I am trying to make is that all Integrated Development Environments are inevitabely bloated at some time in their lifecycle, pricipally because of the 'Integrated' part.

Ok, it really helps to have some basic functionalities needed for programming in one place, but the definition of 'some basic' may vary for different people and sometimes for different projects. The core functionalities include code editing (with color coding, folding and other fanciness), automatic compiling in background or at least easy compiling with a single click, and easy running of the written program. Also, core functionality may include linking with libraries, debugging and accessing library documentation.

But then, when we program we don't just write code, run and debug countinuosly. We also use source versioning systems, build managers, testing tools and frameworks. So, IDEs then get features (usually as plugins) for all these functionalities.

And that is not all, many projects contain files with different syntaxes or in different programming languages, i.e. a Java based web application may contain java files, jsp, properties, javascript, css, and plenty of xml. So, our IDE of choice gets support for all these as well.

And at some point, when we finish working on that project and start another one using a different technology stack, we can either reinstall IDE and repeat process of setting up all the plugins, this time for another set of technologies or we can add new plugin to the existing environment setup. So, now our IDE contains support for newest buzzword-compliant soa based web services, ages old database system and an obscure scripting language with support for closures and duck typing.

Ok, I admit that using buzzword software as an example is a bit of a cheating, because it is not really that hard to convince programmers against leveraging state of art game changer software, but you do get my point of where is existing trend leading us.

Next thing, we have embedded web browser in an IDE, so that you can test your webpages without opening a browser, and a system console within a IDE console, which... well, sends commands to the real shell console, and displays output back in IDE... Some people are apparently trying to create an Uber Development Environment, where programmers would never have to minimize The Editor when programming.

It reminds me a bit of those huge fancy hotels where you are being encouraged to spend your entire vacation within hotel compound, swim in the hotel pool, eat only in hotel restaurant, buy souvenirs in specialized gift shops with mass-produced hand-made local products. Well, I'm simply not that kind of a guy. Seriously, I'm always much more in the mood of going to a beach of my choice, eating wherever I want etc. Ok, I'm offtopic in my own topic! :) My main concern was the efficiency and (effective) ease of use, not the matter of convenience vs. choice. But I couldn't help it, I really dislike these hotels :)

Back to the topic.. There already is an article on thedailywtf, describing a phenomenon which I believe is the main factor that causes bloated IDEs in the first place. They called it The Inner-Platform Effect and the key part of the definition is "a result of designing a system to be so customizable that it ends becoming a poor replica of the platform it was designed with". This effect may occur in literally any application that offers support for plugins or similar extensions. Of course, IDE without plugins may become bloated too, but then all the bloating would have to be done by the IDE developers themselves, rather than "general public".

Anyone correct me if I'm wrong, but it does seem to me that the main IDE window is becoming a replacement for our system's window manager. It contains many tabs or small windows and other widgets for organizing code and other stuff in project. Switching tabs between windows/tabs in Eclipse, Visual Studio, NetBeans, etc.. is the new Alt-Tabbing. I'm just not sure what was wrong with the first one. And that is least of the problems bloatware creates us. For example, any modern editor with all the plugins takes a lifetime to load, occasionally may hang while doing some validation of html versus the w3c standards it wasn't even asked to and other whatnots..

Ok, but so far I just ranted against bloated IDEs, and didn't offer any solution to the problem. As the matter of fact, many of you probably don't even see a problem there. If so, I'm happy for you, folks :) Also, it's possible that you do see the same problem, but may see my solution as afflicted with even worse problems.

Anyway, if you visit my blog again, see my next post where I will explain how I used a really simple and quite low tech programming environment to develop a cool app.


  1. NetBeans funny UI, weird shortcuts. Eclipse ok. End of story :)

  2. great idea, great content, great info and great blog just wanted to stop by and tell you how amazing you are with what you do. keep shinning and making awesome content.