Know your history – IDEs are a developer’s best friend
As our tech history series winds down, we want to take a moment and spend a little time with a topic near and dear to our hearts: IDEs. How did IDEs become so popular and why have they stayed a thing for over thirty years? Open your textbooks to chapter 10 and we’ll find out!
Caesar may have been warned about the Ides, but computer science has long relied on IDEs, or integrated development environments. This integral part of computing has been around since our old friend Anders Hejlsberg came up with TurboPascal in 1983.
But, why did this tool catch on with developers? And how come nothing else has replaced it in over thirty years? Open your books to chapter 10 and we’ll explore more about the wonderful world of IDEs.
The dark ages of programming
IDEs are a developer’s best friend. After all, without an IDE, we need to do everything by hand. And we mean everything. Some of us are a bit too young to remember the early days of programming, but we’ve heard horror stories about punch cards and completely text-based computer programming.
Back in the 1980s, computer programmers had to compose all of their code in a text editor, save it, run it in a separate compiler, see if it worked, write down the errors on paper by hand, and go back to the drawing board in the text editor. (The drawing board being metaphorical, of course.) They had to do this again and again and again, until they finally got a program to work.
Philippe Kahn and Anders Hejlsberg had the idea to integrate all the tools between the traditional edit/compile/line cycle, improving productivity. Turbo Pascal shipped initially with a floppy disk containing a custom text editor, a compiler, and all the functionality that was needed to produce executable programs. Additionally, it famously came with zero copy protections.
However, it was still intrinsically limited by the size of your computer’s memory. Remember, back in those days, you’d be lucky to have a computer with 16-bit hardware. Obviously, things changed as computer memory improved and personal computers could actually perform functions like “have a screen and mouse” in the early 1990s. Suddenly, GUIs were a reality, thanks to Windows.
An IDE for every need
With more memory, you could do more things. This was a quantum leap forward – coding was no longer just an issue of text, but a visual problem that could be solved. Programming could be thought of in graphical terms.
The explosion of IDEs can more or less be laid at the feet of the great-granddaddy of most modern IDEs: Visual Basic. Visual Basic arrived in 1991 with the mother of all inventions: drag and drop. It also set off something of an IDE arms race.
It was followed by Delphi, a Pascal-based IDE where programmers could design and code as well as test and debug in one program. Delphi was also notable for introducing the concept of building apps from pre-fabricated objects.
IDEs helped lower the bar to entry to programming with their relatively easy-to-use setup. Programming became more accessible, taking care of the heavy lifting. Programmers could use existing components to make their code better, improving their overall level. Sure, some people wrote some truly hideous code. But, more importantly, the code ran.
Visual Studio arrived in 1997, one of the first language-agnostic IDEs on the market. However, there was also a great deal of language-specific IDEs, including IBM’s Visual Age for Java, which later turned into our old open source friend Eclipse. This was the genesis for the whole tool ecosystem, which is an integral part of modern day developing.
IDEs of today
A playground and workstation for developers, today’s IDEs are “a convenient means to browse and manipulate a system’s source code or to obtain helpful documentation on APIs”. There’s nothing but options and alternatives out there for whatever a developer could need.
Taking a look at the Top 20 IDEs for November 2018, it’s surprising how many familiar names are on there. More than a few of these programs have been around for some time; Vim in particular has been trucking along for over 26 years.
Microsoft’s Visual Basic continues to dominate the field, closely followed by the open source Eclipse Foundation and Google’s Android Studio in a distant third. After that, however, is a long tail of smaller and smaller IDEs. (We’ve covered some of these IDEs before in our Top 5 series, focusing mostly by language over popularity or usage.)
Modern developers rely on IDEs more than ever: in the desktop, on the web, and in the cloud. The entire application life-cycle can be kept under one roof, from initialization to the CI/CD pipeline. They’ve come a long way from floppy disks, that’s for sure!