One of the greatest problems facing people learning how to program is which set of tools to use. The problem lies in the fact that there are a plethora of different IDEs and toolkits that claim to simplify various aspects of the programming process. But the truth this that all of these IDEs are very complex in nature and require a significant time investment on the part of the programmer, i.e. the programmer must first learn the use of the IDE before he/she can become more efficient. While that may be acceptable or even professional programmers, it is certainly not what a beginner wants. A beginner should be able to learn the intricacies of programming and proper use the language at hand, rather than having to spend hours learning to use the IDE before even properly understanding what it’s for.
I’m currently teaching myself Java and Python with a little bit of Scheme. Here are the three IDEs that I think a beginner will find very useful:
BlueJ for Java.
BlueJ uses a graphical method for aiding learning. The classes you create and their relationships are shown in a clean, uncluttered graphical presentation, similar to a UML diagram. When you create a new class, it automatically creates a skeleton which you can fill in with your own code. It lets you develop classes separately and create objects for testing. Two big advantages are that it frees the student from having to write a ‘main’ function everytime and that parameter and return values for functions can be entered and viewed directly, without requiring the student to write code solely for I/O. BlueJ also provides you with a simple interface to create JAR files from your programs so that they’re easily distributable. You can choose whether or not you want to include the source code with a JAR file. My only complaint is that it’s default editor is a bit too simplistic, even for my tastes and there is no easy way to replace it.
IDLE for Python
This certainly my favorite IDE, just as Python is my favorite language. IDLE comes with the default Python installation so you don’t have to go looking for it. On opening it, you get Python’s interactive interpreter but it’s easy to create a file for a program using the New Window command under the file window. The editor is simple, but offers both syntax highlighting and auto-indentation which will make anyone’s life easier. To run a program, all you have to do is type it out and hit F5. You can’t get much simpler than that. All I/O is handled by the interactive interpreter, so no worries there. The only problem is that it is really ugly, but then again, you can’t have everything.
DrScheme for Scheme
This is actually quite similar to IDLE in that it packs an interactive interpreter as well as one-click run functionality. However the interpreter is limited to simple statements, but that shouldn’t be a problem as there is an editor window open by default. If you’re using the How to Design Programs book, DrScheme is a must as it contains a number of subsets of Scheme that grow in complexity as your knowledge increases. The editor also contains a few more advanced features like definition hiding and a class browser that will be of help as you progress. There is also a way to make executables from your Scheme code, but I haven’t tested this myself. There are no obvious drawbacks, except that it is somewhat slow to start.
Of course any programmer should keep in mind that strictly speaking one doesn’t really need an IDE at all, you can get along fine with a text editor and a compiler/interpreter. However choosing the proper IDE can save you a lot of worry, especially if your language is something like Java which really isn’t designed to be meant for beginners. Once the again, the choice is finally up to you. But whatever you do, have fun, because that’s the way programming is supposed to be.