09 June 2010

Thinking outside the Visual Studio box

Visual Studio and .NET development go hand in hand. As far as I know, every .NET developer uses it. Compared to the Java IDE landscape, there isn’t even competition. And what little competition there is, is pretty much a carbon copy of the approach Visual Studio takes to development. Visual Studio is incontournable, and there is little on the horizon that will change this situation.

What toothpicks and Visual Studio have in common

I did some Java development in Eclipse over 3 years ago, and as I remember it, it worked better than Visual Studio 2010. Let me repeat that:

Eclipse 2007 (for Java) is a better IDE than Visual Studio 2010 (for C#).

I don’t want to go into a feature by feature comparison. No doubt Visual Studio would win. I’m saying that for actual development, you know the thing you’re doing 95% of the time in an IDE, it’s just better. I believe these activities are compiling, testing, refactoring, browsing code and source control.

Compiling. The most important feature of compilation is that you don’t see it. The incremental compilation in Eclipse is just way better. Even for medium sized projects, press Ctrl+S and your code is ready to run. Instantly. This is different from the incremental “compilation” Visual Studio does – while this updates intellisense info on the fly, it does not actually build your code. So if you want to test or run, you’ll have to wait.

Testing. Eclipse comes with excellent JUnit integration out of the box. I guess there’s MSTest for Visual Studio, which is ok, but it doesn’t have that Red-Green-Refactor feel. Open source testing frameworks as far as I know don’t reach the same level of integration. If you want code coverage, be prepared pay some money for at least the Premium edition.

Refactoring. The refactorings in Visual Studio pale in comparison to those in Eclipse. Hands down.

Browsing Code. I think Visual Studio actually has many features in this area, but the UI doesn’t make them particularly discoverable. I’ve found that following references, finding overrides and such in Eclipse is faster and easier than in Visual Studio.

Source control. If you fork out some money, you get integration with Team Foundation with Visual Studio. My feeling is that integration with other source control systems like mercurial and subversion is just not as good as the integration in Eclipse.

Products like Resharper and Testdriven.NET mitigate the refactoring, browsing and testing issues for Visual Studio. But Eclipse comes with these things out of the box. It’s just there when you download it, which is first of all free and second, convenient.

Then, Visual Studio just doesn’t have a good UI. I’m not excited that I can finally make code windows free floating. The solution explorer naturally makes you focus on the files and the file system – while this actually matters little for your day to day development activities. You want to focus on modules, classes, namespace instead (yes, I know about the class browser, but somehow I keep getting pulled back to the solution explorer by Visual Studio.) And then that annoyance among annoyances – the much hated Add Reference dialog. In 2010 they made it asynchronous, so we can now pretend that it is not as slow and painful as amputating your arm with a toothpick, except that it’s worse! At least before you knew when you could start searching for a reference. Now you’re left to wonder – is my reference not there or is it still loading in the background?

What rocks and Visual Studio have in common

Both SharpDevelop and MonoDevelop seem to focus on conforming with Visual Studio. I guess the argument is that this makes it easier for people to migrate from Visual Studio. Wake up people: if it looks like Visual Studio, nobody is going to bother anyway.

I don’t want to talk down to the developers of these projects. I’m sure they’re passionate about what they’re doing. But let’s face it – they’re not going to be able to compete on features, as long as Microsoft is throwing money at Visual Studio. On marketing alone, they’re overwhelmed. As far as I can see there is no buzz surrounding these projects at all. Nobody particularly likes or hates them. They’re boring. Because Visual Studio is. It’s just there. Like a rock. A boring, grey rock.

A call to arms

So, dear SharpDevelop or MonoDevelop developer, or whoever is looking to develop a new software project: here’s my call to arms for you.

Dare to innovate! Forget about Visual Studio. It’s there, and it’s going to stay – but give use a ray of hope. Give us something to look forward to. Give us something that we can love, or hate – something that at least provokes some feelings.

Need some ideas?

Stop bothering with trying to be compatible with Visual Studio. Sure, the assemblies need to be compatible with .NET, but who really cares about MSBuild, and project files, and why even duplicate the solution-project-file based organization of Visual Studio - is there a better way? Can you finally free us from the tyranny of the file system and let us focus on the abstractions provided by the language – it’s called software development, not file shuffling.

Can we make better compilers for C# or VB or F# that are incremental? Note I am talking about the compiler here, not the build system. The Eclipse Java compiler proves that incremental compilation can be pretty much as fast as no-compilation (as in dynamic languages).

Source control – can we go beyond superficial integration with popular SCMs and really integrate change tracking in the language and IDE? With the disk space currently available, is there even a use for the distinction between in memory undo/redo, saving a file to disk and committing a change in source control? Can’t I just type in my code and expect it to be saved, and undoable, and in source control? In addition, can we make “diff” tools language aware please – it’s silly that conflict resolution is line-based, while pretty much every coherent change to code spans multiple files and multiple lines. I’ve never heard of a line-based programming language. Let’s talk about modules and functions and objects and interfaces all the way through please.

Have a look at a Smalltalk IDEs. They have a browser oriented perspective on development, and have had another view on code organization and source control for ages now. There are lots of good ideas there, and it’s about time they are finally acknowledged and brought to the mainstream. The Hopscotch browser for Newspeak looks interesting too.

As far as UI goes, Code Bubbles (built on Eclipse for Java) seems to have some very well thought out UI ideas on browsing, cooperating and debugging.

I believe that any project that does just some of the above has the potential to become huge in the .NET space. Even with respect to mainstream Java IDEs which are nowhere near revolutionary, the .NET community seems to be behind the curve IDE-wise. Developers can see how computing devices all around them are becoming smarter, better integrated and user-oriented. Mainstream IDEs are lagging way behind.

Time for a revolution?

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