Reach for the stars

Hands-on with Eclipse Orion

Elliot Bentley
orion-teaser

We take a look at RC1 of the new browser-based IDE hoping to become your new favourite place for web development.

Eclipse Orion is a new IDE designed specifically for web
development, and one
we’ve covered before at JAXenter
. It’s a project with lofty goals: “to
make the web itself the development environment, instead of trying
to bring existing desktop IDE concepts to the browser”. It’s meant
not as a browser-based replacement for Eclipse, but as a new
project with the Eclipse spirit aimed at web developers.

With the 1.0 release looming, we decided to have a go on the latest
beta to see for ourselves what the Orion team have come up with.
It’s worth noting, of course, that this is prerelease software and
shouldn’t be considered a final review. However, as release
candidate 1, this latest build (I20121005-1256) is presumably
fairly close to GA quality.

The most important aspect of Orion is of course the code editor,
and thankfully the team have done a great job. It runs smoothly,
even with files hundreds of lines long, with customisable syntax
highlighting.

Meanwhile, a built-in error system highlights issues within code
from all three supported languages – handy for spotting the
occasional typo, even if it currently only updates with each save.
Some might wish for an autocomplete function (particularly for CSS
properties), but we imagine that might be the sort of functionality
a plugin could provide.

Projects can be imported from git repositories, via SFTP or
uploaded from the desktop, and then managed within the Orion
filesystem. Sites can be deployed to a test environment within
Orion itself, although (likely as a result of its self-hosted
nature) server-side languages are not supported.

Like its parent IDE, Orion has support for plugins, which can be
installed by simply pasting in an address. While plugins can be
installed from any source, the current build contains a small list
of plugins ranging from code highlighting to the addition of access
to the HTML5 filesystem. This could be Orion’s ‘killer app’ if a
large enough ecosystem build up around it – allowing Orion to be
customised to your heart’s content.

Orion also supports custom themes, which can be designed directly
from within the settings page – such as the pink monstrosity below.
(Update: The team responded via
Twitter
 that ”current themes are more like
examples and the framework supports
 as
well”.)

However, there are plenty of aspects where Orion’s prerelease
nature is still obvious. As the development team themselves
have
pointed out
, the look and feel is currently well below the
standard of similar browser-based IDEs such as Koding.

And despite an internal emphasis on UX, there are still some
strange design decisions – such as the lack of a “new file” button
at the top level of Orion’s file browser and the use of tiny 11px
text throughout the interface.

Hopefully these quirks will be ironed out in time, especially with
the developers eating their own dog food by developing Orion in
Orion. As it stands right now, the software is stable and full of
features, but perhaps not quite polished enough to attract much of
the web developer crowd it wants to attract.

If you’d like to have a go yourself, accounts are free to create at
orionhub.org, while further
information can be found at the Eclipse wiki.

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