Emacs vs Eclipse

Steve Yegge has yet another very long, but hugely informative post up: The Pinocchio Problem. It’s all about what makes great software. Or at least, less-bad software.

One of the things he touches on is Emacs and Eclipse extensions, when compared to Firefox.

The very best plug-in systems are powerful enough to build the entire application in its own plug-in system. This has been the core philosophy behind both Emacs and Eclipse.

Recently (the last 6 months), I’ve been doing almost exclusively Java work, and pretty much exclusively in Eclipse. Before that, I was a die hard Emacs user. Why switch? Well, trying to develop Java code without the help of an IDE is like pulling teeth, basically. Eclipse is an astonishing piece of software, but I’d hesitate to call it “good”. Least-bad is a far better moniker.

But I’m really concerned about the extensions. In Emacs, when you want to extend it, you have to write some lisp code. It sounds scary, but Emacs goes out of its way to make this as easy as possible. Whenever you ask for help on a keystroke, there’s a little link to the source code. You can quickly learn how something works by reading the code for how similar things work. Then, when it comes to actually writing some code, Emacs has a handy interactive mode where you can type code in, run it and see what it does. It’s a real pleasure to use.

Eclipse, being based on Java, goes out of it’s way to make your life difficult. When you want to write an add-on, there is no simple way to see the source code for any of the existing bits. First you have to create a plugin-project. Then diddle the classpath to see which bits of Eclipse you want to extend (Which bits do you need? It’s probably documented on the vast and rambling website somewhere).

Then it’s code writing time. Eclipse tries very hard to make Java palatable by compiling as you type. But it’s still ugly. And what code to write? Well, the “New plugin project” wizard probably made you some examples, if what you were doing was close enough to one of the seven or eight things that the authors thought of.

And how do you run this code you’ve written? Fire up a second copy of eclipse, along with a new workspace. Yes, that’s right, another several hundred Mb of memory just to test-run an extension. Genius, folks. Sheer genius.

Not that this situation has me annoyed at all. I even bought a book to try and understand the process (side note: what is it with all the frames, eclipse people? Pay a designer already). I got about a third of the way through before realising that I wasn’t prepared to even contemplate the herculean effort involved in writing plugins.

The whole experience has left me realising quite how powerful Emacs is. Sure it has it’s flaws (no lexical variables in elisp), but it’s just so much easier to use than Eclipse, it’s scary.

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