Are IDEs a problem?

I’ve just read an interesting piece over at The Register on the bloated awkwardness of Visual Studio 2010, and another on the question of whether we need IDEs at all.

The latter is a difficult question for me – on the one hand, there’s a school of thought I have some sympathy with, which says that IDEs are a crutch of the feeble-minded, and allow bad programmers to kid themselves that they’re good, because they can generate lots of code automatically and hit ctrl-space if they run out of ideas.


When I started programming, six years ago (!), the first three languages I used were Turbo Pascal for Windows, PHP and Visual Basic 6. TPW was a good basic language for teaching A-Level Computing, but the built-in editor was scarcely better than Notepad. I can’t remember if it had a compile-and-run button, but I seem to recall not. PHP was slightly better – once I’d worked out how to get Apache onto my Windows machine and sacrificed a chicken to get PHP talking to it – but again, no IDE out of the box, and even the relatively advanced capabilities built into the copy of DreamWeaver¬† (was I the only student in the country honest enough to cough up over ¬£100 for it?) didn’t feel up to much.

VB6, though, felt magic. In retrospect, it was a horrid language, but not only could I drop controls onto a form and double-click to generate the outline of the method they’d activate, I could actually pause and resume the code while it was running! I could see the values of variables at a point in execution, and even go backwards and forwards. The completion facilities of the IDE were basic, but they were there, and they made things much faster. Writing code to automate Microsoft Office was a particular sweet spot – run the macro recorder to generate code containing roughly the API calls you were after, then drop some VB6 control flow round them, and off we go.

Later, reading Computer Science at Oxford, the practicals we did rarely stipulated an IDE, but we nearly always ended up using gedit + the relevant command-line compiler. Certainly, the existence of IDEs for Haskell was never alluded to – either the ultimate example of clever people thinking IDEs are the preserve of the feeble-minded, or the assumption that we’d be clever enough to go and look for one ourselves, depending on how silly I want to consider myself in retrospect.

I’m happy to say that Java hardly featured at all in our courses (I’m with Joel on that one), but when it did, we were told to use BlueJ, because, Mike Spivey explained, “it has only two buttons, and Eclipse has hundreds of others you don’t need”.

Given the short length of the practicals involved, I only paused to think “pish, how many buttons can it have?”, but I didn’t feel the need to find out for myself until I started writing Java for a living. He was right, there are hundreds of them. Despite which, I use Eclipse every day at work, and would never dream of trying to write code without it. It is, irrefutably, a big, bloated beast, but when you’re working on serious real-world Java, with version control, coding standards, complicated dependencies, hundreds of packages making up one program, and spend far more time reading and debugging code than writing it, you really do need the beast on your side (or so I believe).

So that’s it, then – I’ve converted to the world of IDEs? Well, not quite. The other language I use on a day-to-day basis – though mostly for pleasure rather than business – is Python. And I don’t usually use an IDE, simply bashing out code in Notepad++ on Windows, or KDevelop on Linux. OK, so KDevelop is sort-of an IDE, but it’s very lightweight.

Of course, Python being interpreted rather than compiled makes it easier to just fire up your Python program from the command line after editing it. And that, really, gives us a clue as to the only sane conclusion of the IDE debate: it’s the same as the programming language debate. There are tools (languages and IDEs) and there are jobs. Good programmers pick the best tool for the job, and for a compiled language as verbose as Java, an IDE arguably makes things faster. For Python, on the other hand, it’s not essential (IMO), but it depends on the tastes of the individual.