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Bling and the future of IDEs

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At EclipseCon 2013, L33t Labs revealed a port of SWT running on OpenGL, and used it to demonstrate an Eclipse instance with graphical effects animated by the OpenGL hardware.

The presentation was one of the most highly praised at the time, and recently, a video on YouTube has been released which demonstrates the ability to render the IDE with the affects applied:

SWT is Eclipse's widget rendering library, which can have implementations provided for a variety of different windowing systems whilst taking advantage of native rendering and compositing engines. It was created at a time when the Java-based graphics suffered poor performance and did not look like the native operating system's controls. Since then, the JavaVM and Java UI has increased in performance, and new initiatives such as Java FX have allowed Java to catch up with SWT.

Although the OpenGL example showed a lot of eye candy (including effects which would never likely be used in a real environment) there has been a shift in expectations over the last half decade. Since the release of the iPhone in 2007, the mobile industry as a whole has been focussed on not only eye candy but specifically on targeted user interface improvements that enable the user's attention to be drawn to specific locations of the code.

Many IDEs share the heritage of those created in the previous millennium; Eclipse's “Java Browsing” perspective is based on Visual Age for Java's user interface (which itself is based on Visual Age for Smalltalk, released in the 1980s). Little has changed with the UX of development environments for any of the major Java development tools over the last decade, other than minor tweaks in interface colours or underlying rendering technology changes. (For more on the history of Eclipse, see InfoQ's interview with Mike Milinkovich on the past, present and future of Eclipse .)

Perhaps the biggest change of development environments over the last few years has been Apple's Xcode, which introduced a new way of working with Git repositories (visualising the change history as a TimeMachine-esque effect) and the paths which could lead to a static leak:

Image from showing static anlyzer

These days, the focus of the IDE has swung to the web, with Eclipse Orion aiming to be a web-based editor. In the age of always on-line Git repositories, having an editor which only works in a browser would be an ideal way to work with code remotely. Some of this requires that the UX be reconsidered to fit in with the way in which browsers work, but provides an experimental playground for trying out new techniques and mechanisms.

Whether OpenGL as a rendering platform for an IDE remains to be seen, but the next decade is likely to bring about significant UX changes in the way that code is edited, debugged and built.

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