Disclaimer: the structured editor work described in my posts is unrelated to my work at Microsoft. Everything shown is my personal research done as part of my MSc thesis during 2004-2007. Also, it’s not ready for real use and does not cover all the features of even C# 1.0. It’s a concept prototype and work in progress.
A detailed discussion of structured editors deserves a separate post, which is coming soon. For now, to give a better idea of how the editor works, I’ve recorded six short videos showing the different features below. If your blog reader doesn’t support iframes, I recommend you view this post in the browser.
What is a structured editor?
Programs are represented as text by most code editors. Structured editors, on the contrary, directly display the syntax tree of a program on screen and allow the user to manipulate the tree directly (think MVC: program parse tree is a model, the editor displays a view of it):
This way the visual layout better illustrates the structure of the program and allows for atomic operations on the language constructs. A structured editor lets developers avoid syntax errors and concentrate on the meaning of the program instead of formatting.
3. Drag & Drop Support
4. No Parser Means Less Syntax
Structured editing is a topic surrounded with scepticism and controversy for the past 20-30 years. Some argue that directly editing the AST on screen is inflexible and inconvenient, because the constraints of always having a correct program restrict the programmer way too much. Others expect structured editors to be more helpful than text editors because the user operates atomically and precisely on the language constructs, concentrating on the semantics and not on syntax.
In summer 2004, my professor Peter Bachmann initiated a student research project – we started building a structured editor for C#. I took part because I was deeply persuaded that good structured editors can actually be built, and it was challenging to go and find out for myself. After the original project was over, I took over the basic prototype and evolved it further to the state it is today.
…I see a revolution brewing within the next three years in the way source code is written.
Text editors are going to go away (for source code, that is)! Don’t get me wrong, source code will still be in text files. However, future code editors will parse the code directly from the text file and will be display in a concise, graphical and nicely presented view with each element in the view representing a parse tree node. …
I remember how I agreed with this! After three years, in 2007, the prototype implementation was ready – it became the result of my master’s thesis. I still agree with what Wesner was envisioning in 2004 – with one exception. Now I believe that structured editors shouldn’t (and can’t) be a revolution – fully replacing text editors is a bad thing to do. Instead, structured editors should complement text editors to provide yet another view on the same source tree (internal representation, or AST).
My conclusions about structured editors
- Text-based editors aren’t going away anytime soon.
- Structured editors can only succeed by evolution, not revolution – hybrid approach and ability to toggle between text and structure is the way to go.
- The main difficulty with structured editors is getting the usability right.
- The right approach is solving all the numerous little problems one by one – find a solution for every situation where a text editor is better (from my experience, for any advantage of a text editor, a good structured solution can be found).
- You need a graphical framework with auto-layout such as WPF to build a structured editor.
- Don’t try to build a universal editor editor that can edit itself – this approach is too complex. Take a specific language and build a hardcoded editor for this language first. Only after you’ve built 2-3 successful editors, it makes sense to generalize and build a universal editor or an editor generator.
- Compilers shouldn’t be a black box, but expose the data structures as a public API surface.
- Syntax trees should be observable so that the editor can databind to them.
- Traditional expression editor should be hostable inside a structured editor for single-line statements and expressions.
As a result of my work, I’m convinced that structured editors actually are, in some situations, more convenient than text editors and providing the programmer with two views on the code to choose from would be a benefit. Just like Visual Studio Class Designer – those who want to use it, well, just use it, and the rest continues to happily use the text editor. All these views should co-exist to provide the programmer with a richer palette of tools to chooce from.
Hence, my first important conclusion. A program’s internal representation (the AST) should be observable to allow the MVC architecture – many views on the same internal code model. With MVC, all views will be automatically kept in sync with the model. This is where for example something like WPF data-binding would come in handy.
As for the structured editor itself – it is still a work in progress and I still hope to create a decent complement for text editors. It has to be usable and there are still a lot problems to solve before I can say: “Here, this editor is at least as good as the text editor”. But I managed to solve so many challenging problems already, that I’m optimistic about the future.
The current implementation edits a substantial subset of C# 1.0 – namespaces, types, members (except events), and almost all statements. If you’re interested, you can read more at http://www.guilabs.net and www.osenkov.com/diplom – those are two sites I built to tell the world about my efforts. I also accumulate my links about structured editing here: http://delicious.com/KirillOsenkov/StructuredEditors
It turned out that it makes sense to build structured editors not only for C#, but for other languages as well – XML, HTML, Epigram, Nemerle, etc. That is why, at the very beginning, the whole project was split in two parts – the editor framework and the C# editor built on top of it.
If you want to know more, or if you want to share your opinion on this, please let me know. I welcome any feedback! Thanks!