Is Your Browser Your Next IDE?

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Browser consoles and development tools have become increasingly sophisticated during the past few years. Rudimentary file editing and saving is already available in Chrome so perhaps it’s inevitable vendors are considering full Intergrated Development Environments.

Mozilla’s WebIDE has been added to Firefox nightly builds and is available from the Web Developer menu after you set the devtools.webide.enabled flag to true in about:config…

Firefox WebIDE

The CodeMirror and Tern-based editor provides a simple tool for editing client-side HTML, CSS and JavaScript files. You can create a new web or Firefox OS application directly in the browser. There are several benefits and intriguing ideas:

  • The same editor is available across all platforms regardless of where you’re working.
  • WebIDE integrates with other developer tools for seamless debugging and inspection.
  • You can choose a Firefox OS runtime which installs the appropriate simulator or connects to a specific device.
  • Mozilla is creating an API which will allow other third-party editors to leverage the advanced functionality provided in the WebIDE.
  • A protocol adaptor is being developed so the WebIDE and other developer tools can remotely communicate with other browsers. The first targets are Chrome on Android and Safari on iOS.

We’re also returning to Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision that the web browser should also function as a page editor.

So All Good Then?

I’m not wholly convinced.

What is the target audience? The WebIDE is not for novices; the vast majority of people will never open or use the editor. But is it powerful enough for developers? I’m sure some will try it for Firefox OS and client-side only development but you’ll want to use something more suitable when coding for the server-side. It may be practical for debugging but I suspect most will prefer to stay in their existing editor — especially if it supports the new advanced APIs.

The editor also seems a little too Firefox OS-centric. Mozilla’s Operating System shows promise and HTML5 apps seem a safer long-term bet than Android or iOS development. That said, relatively few developers are building those apps and Mozilla should be wary about marketing which (mostly) associates WebIDE with Firefox OS.

Perhaps the WebIDE may be useful when you’re away from your main PC without your environment of choice but how often does that happen? How difficult is it to use a default editor or install Sublime Text?

My main concern: has Firefox come full circle? Few will remember the original Mozilla Suite; it was a bloated and buggy combination of browser, email, newsgroup client, IRC and Composer — a web page editor which no one used (well, I didn’t know of anyone). Firefox’s original focus was to strip the unnecessary features to create a small, lean and fast standalone web browser.

Admittedly, I’m sounding like a Luddite and the web has moved on. The multi-megabyte Mozilla Suite struggled when power users had 512Mb RAM and a dial-up connection. The WebIDE could be another great development tool which has little or no negative impact on those who don’t need it — even on lower specification mobile devices.

However, the WebIDE raises an interesting question. Should a browser be a lightweight web page viewer or a full development environment with HTML rendering capabilities? Does it matter? It’ll be an interesting to see how the applications evolve over the next few years.

Is the WebIDE a good idea? Would you use it? Should it be an optional add-on rather than a standard tool provided in every installation?

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  • Jingqi Xie

    How I wish that Internet Explorer could come up!

  • Jingqi Xie

    I use Visual Studio to develop Firefox OS apps.

  • http://www.santry.com/ Patrick Santry

    It’s gone back and forth since I’ve been in the industry, we were at thin clients, then thick clients, then back to thin clients, and now back to thick clients with the web browser loading the logic. As long as it works.

    • James Edwards

      “as long as” being the operative condition :-)

      The current era of web development reminds me of the days when companies like Microsoft and Sun were competing over who can provide the most pervasive development environment for their platform, so that people would use it. They thought that if they could nail the tools, everything else will fall into place. But as it turned out, they were all wrong, because (as we realised when XML came along) it’s the data that really matters.

      I think we’re at a similar point with the web, and with browsers like Firefox and Chrome competing to be the all-in-one web consumer and creator of choice. But sooner or later we’re going to realise (again) that it doesn’t matter what tools you use, what development environment you prefer, what framework or libraries you use. It’s what you do with them that matters.

      • Craig Buckler

        At some point someone will have a bright idea to create a fast, lightweight standalone browser without the stuff most people don’t use…

        • James Edwards

          Well for sure. I think you really hit the nail on the head in comparing Firefox to Mozilla — as far as I’m concerned, Firefox is long past the stage of being just like Mozilla was.

          Ironic really, because at the other end of the scale you’ve got browsers like Opera, which is more lightweight than ever, and in being so, has completely lost what it was that made Opera good.

          For me personally, a browser with lots of user tools is useful, but browser with lots of developer tools is pointless. The browser is a tool for consuming content, it can’t be tool for creating it as well. Be one thing or the other, but if you try to be both, you end up being neither.

  • http://marianoviola.com/ Mariano Viola

    I think that a “lightweight web page viewer” for “normal” users should be the main focus of Mozilla as well as maintaining a certain level of neutrality. Moreover the WebIDE distribution through an extension would seem more appropriate for a natively extendable browser like Firefox. In conclusion I think that Mozilla should try not to imprison web into applications aiming rather to become a neutral catalyst for web users and developers.

  • Jingqi Xie

    The WebIDE in Firefox OS is just damn awful. Only the most basic syntax highlight. No IntelliSense. No tag auto closing. I would have to type every letter on my own, which is what it’s like on Notepad.

  • James Edwards

    Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I appreciate the security of knowing where all my stuff is. It’s right here, on my desktop, along with the tools I need to work with it.

    • Ryan Williams

      Just to clarify, the Firefox WebIDE isn’t a web application that’s loaded remotely like Codebox — it’s part of the desktop installation. So it’s no less on your desktop than any of your other editors.

      Not that I’m a fan of the whole idea. I just don’t see the need for a web browser to do everything, just like I don’t need a single app on my phone to do everything. Trying to do this usually results in mediocrity.

      • James Edwards

        Yeah I meant that in reply to Matt Pass talking about cloud-based IDEs.

  • Alex Walker

    I have my main Macbook Pro that has Sublime, and VMs and my graphics apps, but over the past year or so, I’ve been increasingly leaving it at work and using a 2006 white Macbook and 2008 Macbook Pro at home.

    They were both clean installs and the first few times I used them, I didn’t need anything more than WordPress, Github, and a few online tools. After that it became a bit of a game to work on those systems with just online services and extensions.

    Some of the stuff I’ve been using:

    – Code editors : Slim, Codebox.ie
    – Dev environments: Nitrous, Koding
    – Icon generators: Icomoon, Fontastic
    – Graphics (vectors): Janvas
    – Graphics (bitmaps): Sumopaint, Gifpal, Pixlr

    Not *quite* ready to throw away my desktop setup, but I’m finding I miss it less and less when I’m away.

  • http://kasperiunas.com/ Eimantas Kasperiūnas

    I kinda like the idea of having ablility to use dev tools as actual editor, maybe not all the time, but for small fixes and stuff like minor edits it’s realy great.