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Where are the JVM Scripting IDEs?

The raise of scripting languages in the past decade has been spectacular. And since the JVM platform is the largest, a few were designed specifically for that platform while many others were also implemented on top. It is thus that we have JRuby, Jython, Groovy, Clojure, Rhino, JavaFX and the more obscure (read more fun) things like Prolog and Scheme implementations. Production code is being written, dynamic language code bases are growing, whole projects don't even have any Java code proper. Yet when it comes to tooling, the space is meager to say the least.

What do we have? In Eclipse world, there's the Dynamic Languages Toolkit which you can explore at http://www.eclipse.org/dltk/, or some individual attempts like http://eclipsescript.org/ for the Rhino JavaScript interpreter or the Groovy plugin at http://groovy.codehaus.org/Eclipse+Plugin. All of those provide means to execute a script inside the Eclipse IDE and possible syntax highlighting and code completion. The Groovy plugin is really advanced in that it offers debugging facilities, which of course is possible because the Groovy implementation itself has support for it. That's great. But frankly, I'm not that impressed. Scripting seems to me a different beast than normal development. Normally you do scripting via a REPL, which is traditionally a very limited form of UI because it's constrained by the limitation of a terminal console. What text editors do to kind of emulate a REPL is let you select the expression to evaluate as a portion of the text, or take everything on a line, or if they are more advanced, then use the language's syntax to get to the smallest evaluate-able expression. It still feels a little awkward. Netbeans' support is similar. Still not impressed. "What more do you want?", you may ask. Well, don't know exactly, but more. There's something I do when I write code in scripting languages, a certain state of mind and a way of approaching problems that is not the same as with the static, verbose languages such as Java.

The truth is the IDE brought something to Java (and Pascal and C++ etc.) that made the vast majority of programmers never want to look back. Nothing of the sort has happened with dynamic languages. What did IDEs bring? Code completion was a late comer, compared to integrated debugging and the project management abilities. Code completion came in at about the same time as tools to navigate large code bases. Both of those need a structured representation of the code and until IDEs got powerful and fast enough to quickly generate and maintain in sync such a representation, we only had an editor+debugger+a project file. Now IDEs also include anything and everything around the development process, all with the idea that the programmer should not leave the environment (nevermind that we prefer to take a walk outside from time to time - I don't care about your integrated browser, Chrome is an Alt-tab away!).

Since I've been coding with scripting languages even before they became so hot, I had that IDE problem a long time ago. That is to say, more than 10 years ago. And there was one UI for scripting that I thought was not only quite original,  but a great match for the kind of scripting I was usually doing, namely exploring and testing APIs, writing utilities, throw away programs, prototypes, lots of activities that occasionally occupy a bigger portion of my time than end-user code.  That UI was the Mathematica notebook. If you have never heard of it, Mathematica (http://www.wolfram.com/mathematicais a commercial system that came out in the 90s and has steadily been growing its user base with even larger ambitions as of late. The heart of it is its term-rewrite programming language, nice graphics and sophisticated math algorithms, but the notion of a notebook, as a better than REPL interface, is applicable to any scripting (i.e. evaluation-based, interpreter) language. A notebook is a structured document that has input cells, output cells, groups of cells, groups of groups of cells etc. The output cells contain anything that the input produces which can be a complex graphic display or even an interactive component. That's perfect! How come we haven't seen it widely applied?

Thus Seco was born. On a first approximation, Seco is just a shell to JVM dynamic languages that imitates Mathematica's notebooks. It has its own ambition a bit beyond that, moving towards an experimental notion of software development as semi-structured evolutionary process. Because of that grand goal, which should not distract you from the practicality of the tool that I and a few friends and colleagues have been using for years, Seco has a few extras, like the fact that your work is always persisted on disk, the more advanced zoomable interface beyond the mere notebook concepts. The best way to see why this is worth blogging about is to play with it a little. Go visit http://kobrix.com/seco.jsp.

Seco was written almost in its entirety by a former Kobrix Software employee, Konstantin Vandev. It is about a decade old, but active development stopped a few years ago. I took a couple of hours here and there in the past months to fix some bugs, started implementing a new feature to have a centralized searchable repository for notebooks so people can backup their work remotely, access it and/or publish it. That feature is not ready, but I'd like to breathe some life into the project by making a release. So consider this an official Seco 0.5 release which besides the aforementioned bug fixes upgrades to the latest version of HyperGraphDB (the backing database where everything get stored) and removes dependency on the BerkeleyDB native library so it's pure Java now.

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