Reach for the stars

Hands-on with Eclipse Orion

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.

Elliot Bentley

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