Will Orion get developers to code in the cloud?

The Eclipse Foundation's Orion Web-based developer platform has a long way to go if it hopes to replace traditional tools

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An introductory video on the Orion website promises that Orion offers "numerous features to help make you a more productive developer," but frankly, this is marketing drivel. To list a few of these features, Orion allows you to comment a block of code with a single keypress; you can increase or reduce indentation on code blocks; you can navigate files by class or HTML element ID; and it has a fully functional undo/redo feature.

In other words, a developer who isn't already as "productive" as Orion allows should probably be looking for a new line of work. In fact, most traditional IDEs -- even Eclipse -- include many more productivity features than Orion offers now or could probably ever hope to offer. Code autocompletion is practically a must for verbose languages such as Java, for example, but I'd settle for the ability to expand and collapse blocks of code. And while Orion lets you search through files using either plain text or regular expressions, I couldn't find any way to replace text. (Frustratingly, half the control keys I pressed turned out to be valid Orion key commands, while the other half sent commands to my browser -- such as Ctrl+R.) When you pit Orion against an editor with very strong text manipulation capabilities, such as Emacs, there's really no comparison.

The cloud storage model isn't necessarily the best way to manage files for a programming project, either. Developers simply don't relate to their files the same way users of word processors or spreadsheet applications do. If you've ever performed a complex search-and-replace procedure on multiple source files using Unix command-line tools such as grep and sed, you'll see immediately how having your code locked away on OrionHub could be a huge time sink. Of course, you can always have Orion package your code into a Zip archive, download it, and perform your manipulations on your own workstation -- but if you have to do that, why wouldn't you use a desktop IDE to begin with?

Who needs Web-based developer tools?
The Eclipse Foundation isn't the first organization to attempt a Web-based development environment. The Mozilla Foundation long maintained a similar effort. Initially known as Bespin, the project underwent several iterations and was eventually released as Mozilla Skywriter, then merged with a Web-based IDE developed by Ajax.org, called Cloud9.

The Cloud9 effort continues, but the Bespin and Skywriter developers learned many lessons along the way. Among them is one especially interesting nugget: As it turns out, the primary way in which developers share code is through the version control system, not through real-time collaboration. If that's true, then is the Eclipse Foundation's drive to build a collaborative, Web-based development platform a wasted effort?

Not really. I've tried out Web-based office productivity suites such as Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365, and I've been generally dissatisfied with them, just as I am with Orion. Still, I feel they have their place -- as enhancements to traditional desktop software, not replacements for it. As Orion matures, I expect it will find a similar niche.

A capable, open source, Web standards-based development suite is a worthwhile goal, if only so its components can be embedded into other Web applications. For the foreseeable future, however, the Orion team will have to pry VI and SubVersion from my cold, dead hands.

This article, "Will Orion get developers to code in the cloud?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Track the latest developments in programming at InfoWorld.com, and for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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