Development / Open Source

Eclipse Theia Offers a ‘True Open Source Alternative to Visual Studio Code’

31 Mar 2020 8:00am, by

The Eclipse Foundation has released the first production-ready version of the Eclipse Theia code editor, calling it “a true open source alternative to Visual Studio Code.” This 1.0 release, however, is not targeted towards end-user developers, but to the community of dev tool builders who have discovered that creating an integrated development environment (IDE) is more difficult than they predicted.

“There’s a lot of people who are building and delivering various developer tools based on web technologies who did so under the mistaken belief that building a fully-fledged developer tool was a relatively simple task,” said Eclipse Foundation executive director Mike Milinkovich. “We really see that this is an enormous opportunity to help consolidate the activities around building developer tool platforms and really enable consolidation and a reduction of wasted effort around building developer tools.”

Chances are, you have already used Eclipse Theia in some form without even knowing it — the open source project serves as an extensible platform for developing multi-language cloud and desktop integrated development environments (IDEs) such as Red Hat’s CodeReady Workspaces, the Eclipse Foundation’s own Eclipse Che, and Google Cloud Shell. Now, with Eclipse Theia 1.0 available, Milinkovich says that he sees an opportunity for that to only grow, comparing the situation to that of the Eclipse IDE when it arrived in 2001.

As far as Eclipse’s claim that Theia is the “true open source alternative to Visual Studio Code,” Milinkovich points out that, while VS Code is released under an MIT license, the VS code that you download and use as the developer is delivered under a Microsoft End User License Agreement, with the extension registry also containing some usage restrictions. The VS Code extensions themselves, however, are built around an open API standard and are fully supported in Eclipse Theia, and Milinkovich says that they are working on “creating a vendor-neutral extension repository that will not be tied to any particular product.”

While there are many comparisons made between Theia and VS Code, Milinkovich says that the focus right now is more on using Theia to build developer tools for specific verticals and use cases.

“This release is targeted at adopters, not necessarily end-user developers. We don’t have a download for a developer to grab it and download it and run it as a desktop tool. That isn’t the plan. That is in the roadmap for a future release, but the initial focus for this 1.0 is that this is production-ready for adopters to grab it and build their products with it,” said Milinkovich. “Building developer tools is actually harder than a lot of people realize. It’s a common mistake to think ‘how tough can it be to build a text editor and a file system browser? What more do you really need?’ It turns out to actually deliver a professional experience for developers, there’s a lot of work that goes into it.”

Sven Efftinge, project lead for Theia and CEO of both Gitpod and TypeFox, points to Theia’s adoption of VS Code extensions as one that quickly puts it on par with most any other IDE on the market.

“When you come up with a new IDE, there are a lot of problems you have to solve, but the biggest problem is how do I get all the support for the hundreds of programming languages out there in decent quality. We do that by leveraging an existing community,” explained Efftinge. “Theia is the first cloud IDE that really does everything a professional desktop IDE does, but in the browser. So far, browser IDEs have always been playgrounds and insufficient in many cases, lacking good language support, and so on. By leveraging what the community has built, this is kind of now solved and is really on par with desktop applications.

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