Monday, October 01, 2012

The future of dev tools

Classic developer tools have a timeless quality to them. Greybeards and college kids alike happily hack away in Emacs, vi, Bash and a host of other tools older than many of their users. It's surprisingly hard to improve upon these old tools.

But, interest in designing new developer tools seems finally to be emerging. Rather than replacing powerful and expressive textual interfaces with pretty but limiting graphical interfaces, these new tools augment the command-line experience with immediate visual feedback.

Light Table

Chris Granger's re-imagining of the IDE, Light Table, seeks to enhance the developer's "ability to traverse abstraction". Slick demo videos here and here show Light Table's good looks, but also its presentation of functions as the primary unit of abstraction, the ability to show values propagating through code and its handy access to documentation.

During Granger's talk at StrangeLoop, one questioner raised the issue of whether dynamic languages lead to a different style of interaction between tool and developer. Static languages lend themselves to autocompletion and refactoring tools as in Eclipse, whereas dynamic languages emphasize the REPL and perhaps metaprogramming and DSLs.

Though originally funded through KickStarter project, Light Table is closed-source, at least for now. It's scheduled for release next May with support for Clojure, Javascript, and Python.


Modern browsers provide capabilities like accelerated graphics, advanced page layout and process isolation, enabling environments like Neo4j's console demo that combine command shells with interactive graphics.

As far as I can tell, that's just a demo. The real admin console for Neo4j doesn't suck either, but requires tabbing between command shell and graph visualization.

Dev tools in browsers

Browsers keep getting better. In-browser REPLs exists for numerous languages: clojure, haskell, javascript and others. These are typically targeted at language learners, as is Chas Emerick's Clojure Atlas, a visual and conceptual interface for navigating Clojure's documentation. But, I expect more advanced tools will find their way into the browser over time. Fogus's Himera project shows one way forward, delegating some of the heavy lifting to the server.

Amazingly, R Studio Server puts full IDE into the browser, with the help of QTWebkit, GWT and some grand-master level wizardry. With Knitr integration, R Studio approaches live document capabilities.

Sublime Text

On the desktop, the Sublime Text editor picks up where TextMate left off. Sublime can use syntax files from TextMate, which means it already supports your favorite language, plus it's programmable in Python.


I heard about Xiki (for executable wiki) from Tom Henderson, who owes me a book, by the way. An impressive demo video shows off Xiki's merger of advanced UI and command shell.

Xiki integration with Sublime is progressing.

Design principles for programming tools

Bret Victor, known for his design work at Apple and lots of other cool things, has thought deeply about using technology to help people “learn, understand and create”. Victor followed up the inspiring talk Inventing on principle his presentation at StrangeLoop on design principles for programming tools, captured in the essay Learnable Programming.

Tools should enable the programmer to:

  • Read the vocabulary
  • Follow the flow
  • See the state
  • Create by reacting
  • Create by abstracting

What this means is roughly this: Quick access to docs, often triggered by mouse-over, simplifies reading. Visibility into flow and state increases comprehension. “Dumping the parts bucket onto the floor&rduo; encourages mixing and matching and provides visual prompting emphasizing recognition over recall. Abstractions are created by starting concrete and generalizing.

Code is written for a dual audience: machine and human reader, requiring a difficult combination of precision and clarity. As the tools get smarter, the conversation between machine and programmer will get richer. The common thread here is supporting the programmer without imposing limitations, providing an experience more like a blank page and a box of sharp pencils than a menu of canned options, helping to create what Bret Victor calls, “environments that function as an external imagination”.


  1. is an open-source editor for web design and development built on top of web technologies such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript. The project was created and is maintained by Adobe, and is released under an MIT License.

  2. Top 20 online coding tools: New online code sharing sites, debugging tools and even fully fledged IDEs are appearing every day, for example:

    Cloud9 (like Google Docs for code)
    Google Code Playground
    SQL Fiddle

  3. If you have time, Brett Victor's paper Magic Ink is incredible.