A Brief Survey of the History of Editing Programs

Software developers spend a lot of time working with code. Over the past half-century of doing so, we’ve invented a lot of mechanisms that make that task easier and reduce the amount of friction between an idea and a computer executing that idea.

A quick review of the approaches to working with code reveal some areas where tool makers have devoted a lot of effort:

  • Editors — we’ve gone from paper tape to punch cards, from flipping switches on a panel to editing files one line at a time, and finally to the point where (most of us) work with one or more files by directly manipulating the text with a combination of keystrokes. When you get down to it, the experience of editing code in Emacs, TextMate, Visual Studio, or Eclipse are quite similar.
  • Environments — many software developers today use some kind of full-screen tool that puts a friendly face on all the tools they need to create, edit and deploy their software. These days, it is most commonly an IDE like Visual Studio or XCode. But way back in the day, Smalltalk people used a clever piece of technology called a browser, and it’s not too much of a stretch to call Emacs a Lisp browser.
  • Tools — we’ve come a long way in fifty years. We started writing machine code directly, then we grew assemblers, linkers, and compilers. Today, few developers will go through their career without using a debugger, profiler, lint tool, or applying an automated refactoring. There are a lot of development tasks that can be offloaded directly to the computer, leaving the programmer free to worry about important things like why anyone would ever choose three-space tabs.

Finally, let’s not forget that the past half-century of software development has seen more than its fair share of programming languages. These languages express a myriad of ideas and the ones that combine them nicely and support their users well have left a lasting impression in the evolution of how we express our ideas so that computers can run them.

It seems we are nearing an inflection point with regard to how we use tools to create programs. As the keyboard-and-mouse give way to the display-and-finger(s), there’s an opportunity to interact with and modify programs in new ways. I suspect that the future of editing programs has something to do with merging editors with environments and making the tools as pervasively used as typing is today.

Adam Keys @therealadam