Monday 31 March 2008

Ruby on Rails, IDE's and autocompletion

Over the last month I've been tinkering with a web development framework called Ruby on Rails. Its a relatively new framework (only a few years old), quite popular and very different to ASP.NET. My progress with Rails so far has been pitifully slow, for a few different reasons: I've managed to make things harder for myself by trying to learn the newest version (released Dec 2007) which limits the availability of appropriate tutorials and textbooks, I don't have much of an attention span at home and so I'm doing various other things at the same time, and there is one other reason that I'll discuss in a moment. My original plan was to play with Rails from within Heroku, a Rails web host currently in beta that offers a browser based integrated development environment, but I soon realised that it was not appropriate for a newbie learning the ropes. I already had Ubuntu running on my laptop so I went through the process of installing it but then there was still the matter of which IDE to use. Its funny - as a .NET developer I never really had to worry about IDE's. Visual Studio is fantastic and there is little in the way of realistic alternatives. I've never wished for a radically different IDE, just enhancements to VS. But step outside of the world of Microsoft based development and suddenly there are many alternatives and little in the way of consensus of what is 'best'. The majority of Rail's tutorial videos are done on a Macintosh using TextMate, but that is not option for me. When it comes to Rails development on Linux, there are several options and for now I've settled on RadRails, a plugin for Aptana Studio, which seems to be some sort of fork of Eclipse. Ok so why all this harping on about IDE's? Well it turns out that the biggest lesson I've learned so far isn't about web development, but about how I learn frameworks/api's in general:

Known as Intellisense in the Microsoft world, autocompletion is my bread and butter. I will use the documentation to find the necessary namespace and then explore it with autocompletion. Only now am I truly aware of how much I rely on it. If you asked most developers about autocompletion, they'd say "oh yeah, its great, it saves heaps of typing". This is certainly true, but saved key strokes is not where the real benefit lies for me: its a discovery mechanism. I found it difficult learning Ruby without autocompletion (and still do) . Its an unfortunate fact that autocompletion is harder to implement and in general less useful for dynamically typed languages. Autocompletion for Rails would be particularly difficult to implement because so much of Rails is metaprogramming magic. I expect to talk about this in more detail in some future posts. For me, Ruby's impressive support for metaprogramming is its most exciting feature. Much of what makes Rails worthwhile relies on this. But it is this very feature that makes meaningful autocompletion so difficult to achieve, which makes it a double edged sword. Its obvious to me that I need to learn to get by without my crutch. And learn I shall, because while RadRails claims to support autocompletion, I've been hitting a whole lot of ctrl+space and so far I'm not impressed.

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