Review: 4 killer cloud IDEs

Browser-based JSFiddle, Icenium, Cloud9, and Codenvy stretch from client-side JavaScript and HTML5 to server-side Java and Web stacks

A long time ago, way before two or three bubbles came and popped, the world discovered how much fun it can be to edit documents through the Web browser. The early products were simple, but soon companies like Zoho and Google produced a collection of Web applications that were real competitors to Microsoft Office. Today, even Microsoft sells tools that let you fire up your browser to edit documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and almost every other text-based document you can imagine, except one: software.

That programmers don't enjoy the same flexibility and cloud-based simplicity as their glad-handing, techno-clueless business development colleagues is deeply ironic -- programmers are usually decades ahead of the rest of the world, at least when it comes to tools. Why should programmers need to work so hard to develop on their own machine? Why, last week I waited a long time for gigabytes and gigabytes of Xcode tools to arrive from Apple. For some reason, I have to host gigabyte upon gigabyte of libraries on my machine just in case my hundreds of lines of code want to link to any of them. Then Apple dutifully updates Xcode every few weeks, and I get to download the entire thing all over again.

[ Also on InfoWorld: 10 cloud IDEs let you ditch the desktop | Learn how to work smarter, not harder with InfoWorld's roundup of all the tips and trends programmers need to know in the Developers' Survival Guide. Download the PDF today! | Keep up with the latest developer news with InfoWorld's Developer World newsletter. ]

This odd gap is changing, but slower than anyone might expect. Many developers started using cloud-based repositories decades ago, for instance, and they embraced some of the cloud-based build management tools when those came along. Larger shops are already relying on Hudson/Jenkins to watch over their code and make sure the main tree stays pure and buildable. Some companies even offer these tools as services.

The meat-and-potatoes work of development, however, is a far cry from the meat-and-potatoes work of business development or marketing. The programmers are slowly catching up, and browser-based IDEs are appearing. To see how the market is evolving, I spent a few days experimenting with a whole slew of cloud IDEs. I wrote some code, pressed the Build button, and gawked at the "what hath God wrought" that appeared in another tab of the browser. It felt, at times, like I was testing the first telegraph.

The good news is that these browser-based IDEs often look great. Several of them have duplicated the classic IDE layout with a file tree on one side and the editing window on the other. It's like Eclipse but in your browser.

Some of the IDEs are experimenting with structures that are less traditional. The Web is filling up with micro-editors for twiddling with your code, many of them based on open source projects like CodeMirror. The greatest innovation seems to be occuring with the languages that run in your browser. It's a bit unfair to call building a JavaScript page development in the "cloud" just because all of the testing is done in your browser. After all, the browser is the native home for the code. But let's not get too philosophical about it. AJAX pages are a major platform now.

These IDEs are even turning up in places where you might not think of them as IDEs. WordPress, for instance, has an editor module that lets you play around with the PHP and HTML of your website. This is a dangerous tool that gave me all of the power to crash a blog, which I did once or thrice. But the power is seductive and quite useful. You might find yourself rearranging the HTML tags daily because the editor is only a click away.

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 at a glance

 JSFiddleIcenium Cloud9Codenvy
Target userDevelopers of Web pages who need small blocks of JavaScript to add features and fix problemsDevelopers of cross-platform mobile apps Developers of server applicationsDevelopers of server applications
ProductClient-side JavaScriptHTML5 for iOS and AndroidServer-side apps with Node.js, Python, Ruby, or JavaServer-side apps with Java, Spring, Python, Ruby, or PHP
Preferred JavaScript flavorjQuery, Dojo, YUI, Moo, Processing, ExtJSjQuery, KendoServer-side Node.jsBlank slate
Command line accessNoNoYesNo
Platform integrationJSFiddle site hosts shared "fiddles"Apple App Store, Google Play, other Android marketsCloud Foundry, Heroku, Windows AzureAmazon Elastic Beanstalk, AppFog, CloudBees, Cloud Foundry, Google App Engine, Heroku, OpenShift
PricingFreeFree trial; $16 to $19 per monthFree basic version; $12 per monthFree basic version; $9 to $99 per month
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