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.
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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.
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.
Killer cloud IDEs at a glance
|Command line access||No||No||Yes||No|
|Platform integration||JSFiddle site hosts shared "fiddles"||Apple App Store, Google Play, other Android markets||Cloud Foundry, Heroku, Windows Azure||Amazon Elastic Beanstalk, AppFog, CloudBees, Cloud Foundry, Google App Engine, Heroku, OpenShift|
|Pricing||Free||Free trial; $16 to $19 per month||Free basic version; $12 per month||Free basic version; $9 to $99 per month|
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