Is Your Browser Your Next IDE?

Craig Buckler

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 Integrated 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?