What is an IDE?
An IDE, or Integrated Development Environment, is a programming toolbox. It hosts everything a programmer needs to write, test, debug, and compile programs.
This key to process organization is a “suite of programs for program or application development” that boasts an interactive, “graphical” interface, as well as “tools for code writing and editing, compilation, execution, and debugging“.
You may also like: Top IDE software 2021
The Birth of the IDE came from the Birth of Intuitive Coding:
The main purpose of an IDE is to make programming more accessible and intuitive for experts and learners alike.
The first computer programming language to use any kind of IDE was Dartmouth BASIC, developed by a team of professors and undergraduates at Dartmouth University in the 1960’s.
BASIC was designed for simplicity. Computer programming languages of the time, namely ALGOL, were extremely time consuming to both learn and use. This made programming less accessible to the average person.
The faculty at Dartmouth wanted more people from non-scientific backgrounds to be able to create computer programs. While they were able to create a more intuitive language, there were still issues with making this program widely available: mainly, not many people had computers. In fact, not even the Dartmouth Mathematics Department owned a computer before they began writing the OS to run BASIC (they wrote this OS on paper, and used the department’s furniture budget to purchase the computer). Yet, they did have a solution to this issue of accessibility, developing what we can now consider one of the first integrated development environments, or IDEs.
The OS was called the DTSS, or the “Dartmouth Time Sharing System“. It presented a form of Time Sharing that allowed multiple users to simultaneously operate on a single computer— in essence, an early version of an IDE.
Like an IDE, programming in the DTSS was meant to offer users efficiency and rapid response. And also like an IDE, the DTSS acted as a user interface, input, and compiler— all in one place.
In the past sixty years, IDEs have come a long way towards simplifying the user experience. Today, they offer a more intuitive interface and features besides just a compiler.
What about IDEs today?
The main features of an integrated development environment vary, depending on the IDE’s target language and extensibility. That said, most IDEs offer a range of features for Code Editing, Debugging and Testing, Compiling, and Teams and Third-party Support.
Here is a list of some common IDE features:
- Code Editor
- Error Checking
- Syntax Highlighting
- Ease of Navigation
- Libraries and Frameworks
- Auto-Complete or Text Prediction
- Refactoring Tools
- Debugging and Testing Tools
- Language Translation
- Build Automation
- Auto Documentation
- Third-party Support
- Version Control, Version Management
The code editor combines text editing, syntax highlighting, auto-complete, bracket matching, and syntax checking, to make writing code easier. Some IDEs have smart completion for code editing, which can predict and autocomplete text. Other IDEs have intelligent code completion features, which use artificial intelligence to predict a user’s desired input.
In combination with code editing features, visual navigation tools like fuzzy search, file trees, or tabs can make the editing process much easier. These features allow programmers to navigate through large programs. Without these features, searching through a countless lines of code could be like searching for a needle in a haystack.
While there are more specialized features available for different IDEs or languages, some version of code editing features are a must-have for IDEs. Code editing features make writing and editing code more efficient, visual, and intuitive.
Debugging and Testing
Without debugging tools, one might use print statements. But this can be extremely time consuming. The user has to compile the program, wait, find bugs, debug, rinse, repeat.
Debugging and testing tools, however, can simplify this process. They may include automated debugging, bug finders, setting breakpoints, or visual and interactive debugging features, such as device emulators.
Testing is also an integral part of the coding process, and can be aided by various IDE testing tools. These could include a built-in terminal, profiler, code analyzer, refactoring tools, or unit and load testing capabilities.
Helpful debugging and testing tools built into the integrated development environment toolbox can lighten the burden on the programmer, make these crucial steps simpler, and help to avoid overlooking errors.
At some point, a programmer will have to translate all that managed code to native code, or turn the code into an executable program. Almost all IDEs have a built-in compiler to do this.
While a programmer may choose to use a separate compiler, having a compiler within an IDE is simply easier. This is the whole idea of an IDE: having everything necessary for productive programming integrated into a single toolbox.
Teams and Third-party Support
Rarely today do people write large programs alone. But working with teams, especially remote teams, brings its own set of challenges. Support within an IDE for communication, collaboration, and version control are essential to organizing a project and truly taking advantage of the benefits of Agile, DevOps, or other forms of team development.
Development teams often require an IDE with a robust plugin marketplace that includes both IDE team features and third-party support. These features could include Git support, bug tracking tools such as Jira, team servers, cloud-enabled applications, screen or live sharing capabilities, messaging or communication features such as Slack code sharing, or version control services.
Furthermore, third-party support is not the only thing that can strengthen an IDE’s ecosystem. Plugin libraries can considerably extend the functionality of an IDE. For example, a plugin could add support or debugging tools for languages that are not supported out of the box.
While companies cannot predict all of a programmer’s software development needs, providing plugins can provide specialized features not built in to the IDE, and can keep the IDE moving with the demands of the market.
In addition to an extensive plugin marketplace, having tutorials and a strong support system are all essential features for an IDE. Just like people are not born knowing how to program, programmers are not born knowing how to use an IDE. A good IDE not only makes an understandable program, but also offers detailed tutorials for its features.
Additional support for questions, bugs, and other forms of communication are also an important part of the user experience. Without a strong connection to its user base, the product can become out of touch and unusable.
Strong integrated team features, third-party support, and a connection with its user base are all essential features of an IDE. The actual code-writing, editing, and compiling parts of programming are only the tip of the iceberg: programmers also use an IDE to receive support from both their team and the IDE user community.