Is Bespin the 21st century text editor?

Integrated Development Environments are one of the primary tools of our trade. But personally I think an IDE can only be a good product if it has a robust text editing component. The king of text editors is Emacs. No offense to Vi users, but the Emacs + Elisp combo is unbeatable in my opinion, for a number of different reasons, programmability being the main one. Of course Emacs does have its problems. Steve Yegge discusses these problems quite thoroughly in his post on XEmacs. What’s interesting is that he claims that if Emacs doesn’t get its act together and fix its problems, it won’t be long before a browser sprouts enough editing capabilities to eclipse Emacs. I think that time is close at hand.

Enter Bespin. It’s a Mozilla project that is still under heavy development, but there’s a public demo already available. Bespin is an online text-editing environment written entirely in open source JavaScript. It’s provides syntaz highlighting and some project management and looks really slick by making use of the HTML5 canvas element. The best way to understand what Bespin can do would be to watch their introductory video:

It may not be immediately obvious what all the fuss is about if you’re used to using a modern IDE like Eclipse. After all, it’s just a text editor, right? Yes, it is just a text editor and that’s where the beauty of it lies. Firstly, t’s programmable in the Emacs tradition. That means that you are allowed and encouraged to write your own bits of JavaScript to adapt it to work the way you want to. Secondly, it’s sports an open server API which means that you could potentially use Bespin as an editor-like interface to anything you want. This has already led to Bespin running on top of the Eclipse IDE. Eclipse acts as the server and Bespin acts as the editor interface to it. Here’s a screenshot of Bespin+Eclipse in action showing Eclipse communicating errors in the Java code that Bespin is editing.

Keep in mind that Bespin is still in a very experimental stage. However, the example above is clear evidence that Bespin is going to be a force to reckon with in the IDE sphere soon enough. I think that bringing a client-server model to IDEs is going to offer a significant productivity improvement to programmers especially as developers and companies have to wrangle increasingly complex, heavy weight codebases.

Development machines need to be real monsters nowadays to efficiently handle the demands of the software being developed. Using Bespin, developers could invest in industrial strength servers which serve as both code repositories and build farms. The developer’s machine then act simply as terminals or can run local lightweight server instances for the Bespin frontends to connect to. This means that developers can afford having cheaper machines themselves, but don’t need to wait for long compile times as they’re being outsourced to the powerful servers. Code is also centrally stored meaning that it can be pulled up a moment’s notice and worked on collaboratively. This could mean more efficient workflows for software companies.

But the biggest win would be for the developers themselves. Here is how I can see myself using Bespin: I’d have a machine sitting in a safe, well connected location running a Bespin server. This would be my main development machine so I’d trick it out with as much RAM and processor speed as I could afford. The server itself might be some form of headless Eclipse or something equivalent for whatever language I happen to be progamming in. The cool thing is that since there is an implementation agnostic server API, I could even write my own server that lashes together compilers and build tools for whatever language I happen to be using and displays results via Bespin. The server would also use a version control system like Git seamlessly as part of the storage infrastructure. I could then connect to this server either from any modern browser meaning that I wouldn’t have to drag a machine with me to write some code. Anywhere hacking would be a boon for open source developers and students. I can also imagine a Github-like service that hosts both files and their development tools so that developers can avoid even running their own Bespin servers.

So is the age of always-available, online IDEs upon us? I think not quite yet. It’s still untested territory to a large degree. Bespin itself is coming along quite nicely and is implementing some very interesting ideas. But a lot is going to depend on how well the Bespin servers work. Headless Eclipse is fine for Java, but there needs to be similarly capable systems evolving for other languages and platforms as well. The API does a good job of keeping things minimal and implementation agnostic, but it also puts the onus on server developers to make quality systems targeting their respective platforms. I’m looking forward to some good work coming out of the Bespin and related projects in the near future. I’m even seriously considering learning some JavaScript so that I can better understand how the whole thing works. For the time being though I’ll stick to Emacs, though I’ll certainly keep an eye on the Bespin mailing list.