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Too Much Information? Eclipse UI Tool Focuses on Tasks

The Eclipse Foundation today released a new 'task-focused' user interface designed to reduce information overload among developers working in integrated development environments. Mylar 1.0, available now, addresses what project lead Mik Kersten describes as a fundamental impediment to developer productivity.

'IDEs like Eclipse and Visual Studio make the systems developers work on instantly navigable and queriable,' Kersten explains. 'The problem is, these systems are made up of hundreds of thousands—sometimes millions—of lines of code. What the IDEs have done by making all of this so easy to navigate is to leave programmers completely overloaded with information. The IDE views that they use will often contain hundreds or thousands elements. The result is that they will often spend more time searching and scrolling through long trees and lists, looking for the information they need, than they do actually programming.'

Mylar 1.0 makes tasks a part of the IDE by integrating task repositories, such as Bugzilla, Trac, and JIRA. Once the tasks are integrated, it monitors the developer's work activity to identify information relevant to the task-at-hand. And then it uses this task context to focus the UI on the 'interesting' information, hide the 'uninteresting,' and automatically find what's related. In other words, it allows developers to see only the files and resources associated with a specific task. Perhaps more importantly, Mylar has the ability to create tasks automatically as the developer works, thereby making it easy for them to adopt a new way of working.

'Mylar cuts the fat out of everything developers do,' says Forrester analyst Carey Schwaber, 'the fat being hunting for the right files and lines of code in which to make changes. This is not a useful activity, but the research that folks associated with Mylar have done has demonstrated that it chews up a shocking portion of developers’ days. At first, I thought of Mylar as the equivalent of hunt-and-peck versus touch-typing. But I think it’s actually more like hunt-and-peck versus a single keystroke for every sentence in terms of the productivity gain.'

'Our goal is to make all the scroll bars go away in the IDE,' Kersten says.

Kersten started the Mylar project as part of his Ph.D. thesis at the University of British Columbia. (He's defending that thesis this week.) The name comes from the plastic film used in solar Eclipse viewing glasses. 'In this context, Mylar is our task-focused user interface layer over Eclipse that prevents information blindness,' he says.

Peter Hendriks, a developer/designer based in the Netherlands, has been using Mylar since April. 'Mylar has come a long way from a filter-gizmo to a seriously full-fledged, task-based context-support tool,' he told ADT in an email. 'The task-integration with Bugzilla is awesome, and I really like the feature to scribble down private notes on a task. The integration with source control and unit testing just shows that this tool is getting really mature. Mylar adds value in a lot more areas than you'd expect at first glance.

'I loved it since day one,' he added. 'To me, Mylar is a Next Big Thing for coders, like code completion and refactoring support. If you are a developer, you want this!'

It might be the next big thing, says Schwaber, but the concept of task integration is not new. 'Software Configuration Management vendors such as IBM, Borland, and Serena achieve task orientation by marrying their SCM tools with change management tools, so that every task the developer completes is associated with certain changes they’ve committed to the code base,' she says. 'However, these tools are very expensive, and Mylar is free. Mylar is also a step beyond any SCM tool in terms of the depth of its task orientation. I think the masses will start picking up Mylar pretty rapidly, and that it’ll ultimately become as common as tools like JUnit, if not more so. And as for vendors: I know that many are already building integrations and that even more are looking into it right now.'

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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