By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2005-10-17 Print this article Print

Although next spring marks the 10th anniversary of Java integrated development environments, toolmakers still find innovative ways to make developers more productive in that language and on its associated platforms. Even familiar tasks such as source code editing are fertile ground for continuing tool improvements.

Whats the smart way to outsource development? Click here to read Peter Coffees take.
One attractive example is JetBrains Inc.s IntelliJ Idea 5.0, which offers developers a smooth path to adoption and an impressive set of amenities on arrival. In eWEEK Labs tests, this August update looked good when compared with its current competitors—and downright incredible compared with what we were happy to get in Symantec Corp.s groundbreaking Café 1.0 in March 1996.

This is our first review of IntelliJ Idea, whose own Version 1.0 appeared in January 2001. The questions that Version 5.0 must answer go far beyond those that wed have aimed at the debut release. In particular, a Java tool set that comes to market today must demonstrate value compared with capable and free multiplatform tools, such as Eclipse and NetBeans, or bundled tools with strong platform integration, such as Apple Computer Inc.s Xcode.

At $499 per concurrent user for commercial development, IntelliJ Idea is not overpriced, but neither is it a casual purchase when excellent alternatives are given away. Academic and open-source developers enjoy discounted licensing, including a free one-year, renewable license for noncommercial open-source projects that meet JetBrains reasonable eligibility requirements, detailed at www.jetbrains.com/idea/opensource/opensource.html.

We note with approval JetBrains eclectic policy that requires only a single license for multiplatform development, as long as only one copy of the product is active at any time. We tested Version 5.0, after pleasantly quick and simple download and installation, on both Windows XP and Macintosh OS X machines.

If we merely listed the improvements in Version 5.0, giving one or two lines to each, wed consume the entire space available for this review. This is one of those rare updates that merits a left-of-decimal-point increment to the version number, for reasons that speak to several developer communities.

Web-oriented developers will find in Version 5.0 an arsenal of clever and convenient aids for HTML and JSP (JavaServer Pages) authoring. Code completion, code formatting, and refactoring tools for HTML and JSP code are both comprehensive and intuitive . For example, the editor knows enough about HTML tags that it can provide a pop-up alert if a single tag includes more than one definition for a single attribute.

Unfamiliar HTML tag attributes can be looked up quickly on the World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3c.org) Web site: A two-key command opens a browser window and navigates to the definition of the attribute label thats under the edit cursor. This feature would be more useful if it extracted the relevant paragraph from the W3C page and showed it in a pop-up window, rather than interrupting our code-editing session to put a browser front and center.

That level of immediate aid is already available in other Version 5.0 features, such as the embedded image viewer that allowed us to inspect an image without tedious navigation to another tool. IntelliJ Idea raises the bar for integration with single commands, such as Ctrl-Shift-I for "inspect this," that take appropriate action ranging from showing the content of an image file to displaying the implementation of a method .

Use of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) becomes easier with the error-highlighting and the reference-finding features in the IntelliJ Idea 5.0 source code editor. Growing use of JavaScript by many developers also gets a boost with code completion and on-the-fly error identification, where the IntelliJ Idea editor was already a standard- setter for Java code and now has comparable power for JavaScript as well.

With an open interface for custom extensions, including support for other programming languages, IntelliJ Idea can readily serve as a starting point for specialized tool-building efforts. Version 5.0 encourages such consideration with its facilities for importing projects from Borland Software Corp.s JBuilder or Eclipse.

We were disappointed to discover that IntelliJ Idea follows the school of multiplatform design that would rather look the same everywhere than look like a native application anywhere. File-browsing dialog boxes, for example, follow a common-subset convention of the Windows and Macintosh standard dialogs, lacking the navigational aids of either platform. This gave us a vaguely disoriented feeling of not knowing quite where we were, especially when working side by side with other applications and tools with native user-interface components.

IntelliJ Ideas rendered dialogs were adequately responsive on a 2.2GHz Windows workstation but seemed a little out of breath on the 867MHz PowerBook that we used for Mac OS X tests. However, we were more concerned by other forms of lag between our actions and IntelliJ Ideas responses. For example, an aborted module creation wizard can leave behind an empty directory that the File Open dialog can access but that the project view does not show.

The File Synchronize menu command restored the consistency of those views, but wed rather not have to clean up after ourselves. The three-fingered synchronization salute (Ctrl-Alt-Y on Windows, Command-Option-Y on the Mac) may become an automatic behavior after only brief acquaintance with the product. But years of work with tools such as Borlands JBuilder have made us accustomed to more transparent behavior in keeping multiple views of work up-to-date. Next page: Evaluation Shortlist: Related Products.

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developersÔÇÖ technical requirements on the companyÔÇÖs evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter companyÔÇÖs first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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