Visual Studio Code: Stepping on Visual Studio’s toes?

Microsoft’s increasingly capable open-source code editor is casting a shadow over its signature IDE

Visual Studio Code: Stepping on Visual Studio’s toes?
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What exactly is the difference between Microsoft’s Visual Studio IDE (integrated development environment) and its Visual Studio Code source code editor? This is a question that is popping up more often as Visual Studio Code gains momentum among developers. 

If you ask Microsoft, Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code are distinctly different products that serve different needs. But as Visual Studio Code continues to add features, developers may decide that the open source, freely downloadable Visual Studio Code is all they need.

Microsoft describes Visual Studio as a full-featured development environment that accommodates complex workflows. Visual Studio integrates all kinds of tools in one environment, from designers, code analyzers, and debuggers to testing and deployment tools. Developers can use Visual Studio to build cloud, mobile, and desktop apps for Windows and MacOS. 

Microsoft describes Visual Studio Code, on the other hand, as a streamlined code editor, with just the tools needed for a quick code-build-debug cycle. The cross-platform editor complements a developer’s existing tool chain, and is leveraged for web and cloud applications.

But while Microsoft views the two tools as complementary, developers have been raising questions about redundancy for years. Responses to a query in Stack Overflow, made four years ago, sum up the differences this way: Visual Studio Code is “cross-platform,” “file oriented,” “extensible,” and “fast,” whereas Visual Studio is “full-featured,” “project and solution oriented,” “convenient,” and “not fast.”

Some pointed out that “not fast” is an understatement, and that Visual Studio is “quite heavy” in terms of CPU and memory requirements. Note too that a Visual Studio installation might be tens of gigabytes in size, while Visual Studio Code takes a few hundred megabytes. 

Others said Visual Studio Code is no mere “editor,” considering it has debugging, task running, version control, and IntelliSense code completion, like Visual Studio. And monthly updates of Visual Studio Code offer developers new capabilities every few weeks. The May 2019 release, for instance, adds smart selection for JavaScript and TypeScript, using semantic knowledge to expand selections for expressions, types, classes, statements, and imports. 

In December 2018, engineering recruiter Triplebyte reported that Visual Studio Code was now the editor of choice for engineers during its programming interviews, far surpassing Visual Studio. But in Pypl’s Top IDE index, which is based on how often IDE download pages are searched on Google, Visual Studio still reigns, with a 21.92 percent share in July 2019. Visual Studio Code, though, is gaining year over year, taking sixth place this month with a 4.72 percent share. Visual Studio’s share fell.

One thing Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code share is a wealth of extensions in the Visual Studio Marketplace, which allows users to add capabilities ranging from GitHub accommodations to SQL database development and web development. These extensions certainly expand the range of what Visual Studio Code can do. Microsoft recently introduced Visual Studio Code Java Pack Installer, for example, which makes it faster and easier to configure Visual Studio Code for Java development. There’s also a Python development extension, among many others.

With Visual Studio Code gathering steam and functionality, Microsoft might have a harder time selling developers on the differences between the super-editor and the Visual Studio IDE. The production version of Visual Studio 2019 was released in April 2019, so the IDE is still going strong. Look for developers, though, to continue to puzzle over whether they need the full IDE or can get by with the continually enhanced Visual Studio Code editor.

You can download Visual Studio Code or Visual Studio from the Visual Studio websites. 

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.