Integrated development environment

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Anjuta, a C and C++ IDE for the GNOME environment

An integrated development environment (IDE) also known as integrated design environment or integrated debugging environment is a software application that provides comprehensive facilities to computer programmers for software development. An IDE normally consists of:

  • a source code editor
  • a compiler and/or an interpreter
  • build automation tools
  • a debugger

Sometimes a version control system and various tools are integrated to simplify the construction of a GUI. Many modern IDEs also have a class browser, an object inspector, and a class hierarchy diagram, for use with object-oriented software development.[1]


IDEs are designed to maximize programmer productivity by providing tightly-knit components with similar user interfaces. This should mean that the programmer has much less mode switching to do than when using discrete development programs. However, because an IDE is by its very nature a complicated piece of software, this high productivity only occurs after a lengthy learning curve.

Typically an IDE is dedicated to a specific programming language, so as to provide a feature set which most closely matches the programming paradigms of the language. However, some multiple-language IDEs are in use, such as Eclipse, ActiveState Komodo, recent versions of NetBeans, Microsoft Visual Studio, and WinDev.

IDEs typically present a single program in which all development is done. This program typically provides many features for authoring, modifying, compiling, deploying and debugging software. The aim is to abstract the configuration necessary to piece together command line utilities in a cohesive unit, which theoretically reduces the time to learn a language, and increases developer productivity. It is also thought that the tight integration of development tasks can further increase productivity. For example, code can be compiled while being written, providing instant feedback on syntax errors. While most modern IDEs are graphical, IDEs in use before the advent of windowing systems (such as Microsoft Windows or X11) were text-based, using function keys or hotkeys to perform various tasks (Turbo Pascal is a common example). This contrasts with software development using unrelated tools, such as vi, GCC or make.


GNU Emacs, an extensible editor which is commonly used as an IDE on Unix-like systems

IDEs initially became possible when developing via a console or terminal. Early systems could not support one, since programs were prepared using flowcharts, entering programs with punch cards (or paper tape, etc) before submitting them to a compiler. Dartmouth BASIC was the first language to be created with an IDE (and was also the first to be designed for use while sitting in front of a console or terminal). Its IDE (part of the Dartmouth Time Sharing System) was command-based, and therefore did not look much like the menu-driven, graphical IDEs prevalent today. However it integrated editing, file management, compilation, debugging and execution in a manner consistent with a modern IDE.

Keyboard Maestro [2]

Maestro I is a product from Softlab Munich and was the world's first integrated development environment[3] 1975 for software. Maestro I was installed for 22,000 programmers worldwide. Until 1989, 6,000 installations existed in the Federal Republic of Germany. Maestro I was arguably the world leader in this field during the 1970s and 1980s. Today one of the last Maestro I can be found in the Arlington Museum of Information Technology.

One of the first IDEs with a plug-in concept was Softbench. In 1995 Computerwoche commented that the use of an IDE was not well received by developers since it would fence in their creativity.


Visual programming

There is growing interest in visual programming[citation needed] (not to be confused with Visual Basic or Visual C++). Visual IDEs allow users to create new applications by moving programming building blocks or code nodes to create flowcharts or structure diagrams which are then compiled or interpreted. These flowcharts often are based on the Unified Modeling Language.

This interface has been popularized with the Lego Mindstorms system, and is being actively pursued by a number of companies wishing to capitalize on the power of custom browsers like those found at Mozilla. KTechlab (right) supports flowcode and is a popular opensource IDE and Simulator for developing software for microcontrollers. Visual programming is also responsible for the power of distributed programming (cf. LabVIEW software). An early visual programming system, Max, was modelled after analog synthesizer design and has been used to develop real-time music performance software since the 1980s. Another early example was Prograph, a dataflow-based system originally developed for the Macintosh. The graphical programming environment "Grape" is used to program qfix robot kits.

This approach is also used in specialist software such as Openlab, where the end users want the flexibility of a full programming language, without the traditional learning curve associated with one.

An open source visual programming system is Mindscript, which has extended functionality for cryptology, database interfacing, etc.

Language support

Some IDEs support multiple-languages, such as Eclipse or NetBeans, both based on Java, or MonoDevelop, based on C#.

Support for alternative languages is often provided by plug-ins, allowing them to be installed on the same IDE at the same time. For example, Eclipse and Netbeans have plug-ins for C/C++, Python, Ruby, or PHP, among other languages.

Attitudes across different computing platforms

Many Unix programmers argue that traditional command-line POSIX tools constitute an IDE, though one with a different style of interface and under the Unix environment. Many programmers still use makefiles and their derivatives. Also, many Unix programmers use Emacs or Vim, which integrate support for many of the standard Unix build tools. Data Display Debugger is intended to be an advanced graphical front-end for many text-based debugger standard tools.

On the various Microsoft Windows platforms, command-line tools for development are seldom used. Accordingly, there are many commercial and non-commercial solutions, however each has a different design commonly creating incompatibilities. Most major compiler vendors for Windows still provide free copies of their command-line tools, including Microsoft (Visual C++, Platform SDK, Microsoft .NET Framework SDK, nmake utility), CodeGear (bcc32 compiler, make utility).

Additionally, the open-sourced GNU tools (gcc, gdb, make) are available on many platforms, including Windows.

IDEs have always been popular on the Apple Macintosh's Mac OS, dating back to Macintosh Programmer's Workshop, Turbo Pascal, THINK Pascal and THINK C environments in the mid-1980s. Currently Mac OS X programmers can choose between limited IDEs, including native IDEs like Xcode, older IDEs like CodeWarrior, and open-source tools, such as Eclipse and Netbeans. ActiveState Komodo is a proprietary IDE supported on the Mac OS.

Some open-source IDEs such as Code::blocks, Eclipse, Lazarus and Netbeans, which themselves are developed using a cross-platform language (e.g., Free Pascal or Java), run on multiple platforms including Windows, Linux, and Mac OS.

See also

  • Comparison of integrated development environments
  • Computer-aided software engineering
  • Multiple document interface#IDE-style interface
  • List of software engineering topics
  • Rapid application development
  • Read-eval-print loop
  • Software development kit
  • Software engineering
  • Utility program