The rise and rise of Visual Studio Code

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One of the most notable successes of the last four years has been the meteoric rise of the Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code editor. 

From initial release it has swiftly become the de-facto Integrated Development Environment (or IDE) for the majority of developers - that's an enviable level of market dominance... But how and why did this happen?

What is special about VSC?

Not only is Visual Studio Code (aka VSC), free, open-source, fast and light weight it is also cross platform, reliable and extensible. It allows colour coding of syntax, intelligent code completions (IntelliSense), code reformatting / refactoring - and it works very well with git. It provides out of the box support for several languages including JavaScript and TypeScript and related technologies such as JSON, HTML and CSS. Support for other languages including C#, Java, Python and Go, can be provided using an extensive range of plugins. It almost sounds too good to be true!

It should be remembered that Microsoft already had a very successful and well-established IDE called (confusingly) Visual Studio. So why develop another tool that, at least some extent, is a rival to its own product? Part of the answer is that they wanted to be attractive to non-Microsoft Windows developers. That is, those developers who might not choose to use a Microsoft product and might otherwise choose to use tools such as Sublime TextAtom (or indeed even old-school editors such as Vim or Emacs).

One question that this can raise is ‘why the name?’. In what way are VSC and Visual Studio related? The short answer is not very much at all, apart from sharing the family name. 

So why would Microsoft do this? The answer of course is marketing. It meant that developers who were used to using Visual Studio, tended to take a look at the new kid on the block, to see what the difference was. This worked to some extent but was also confusing as VSC did not look anything like Visual Studio. It also probably put some non-Visual Studio developers off using it (initially at least). Of course, Microsoft have some history with this sort of thing as illustrated by the unrelated Skype and Skype for Business!

The rise and rise of Visual Studio Code

When was it created?

VSC is relatively new; it was released in April 2016 only a year after Microsoft announced it at the annual Microsoft Build Conference. This makes it only just 4 years old.

Interestingly it is not based on Microsoft’s .NET framework but rather on the Electron Framework used for building cross-platform desktop applications in JavaScript, HTML and CSS (which is ideal for building very lightweight apps that are easily ported to Windows, MacOS and Linux environments).

Initial reception

We first came across VSC in late 2016 when a company with which we were working proposed it as the development tool for use with their Web Technology stack. The stack used AngularJS and related technologies (and later Angular 2 and TypeScript).

At the time it seemed quite a minimal editor, that was easy to pick up and work with. However, it did not quiet feel in the same league as the far more powerful commercial tools such as WebStorm from JetBrains but certainly a competent competitor for the likes of Sublime Text or Atom.

Later, in 2017, we began to exploit the burgeoning market in third party VSC plugins while working with Node.js. These plugins significantly enhanced the range, flexibility and power of the VSC editor (often making it more of an IDE than a humble editor).

Since then our use of VSC has grown and grown (in line with the developer community in general) and it is now our go-to editor for not just JavaScript or TypeScript, but also Node.js development, Python coding and most recently for Go development.

How popular is VSC?

The short answer is ‘very popular indeed’. The annual Stack Overflow Developer Survey found that in terms of editors and IDEs, VSC was placed 13th in 2016, 5th in 2017 and 1st by 2018; a position it retained in 2019. 

As seen in the following graph, just over 50% of respondents were using VSC by 2019 just 3 years after it was released. It is now the most popular editor beating its namesake Visual Studio as well as Sublime Text, Atom, IntelliJ and all the rest in many cases by some margin...

The rise and rise of Visual Studio Code

Why is VSC so popular?

This of course begs the question ‘why is it so popular?’. There are several reasons for this:

  • It’s Free
    Microsoft makes VSC available as freeware binaries. This means that there are no issues associated with licensing and developers can download and use the tool for both commercial and non-commercial projects.
  • It’s Opensource
    All the source code for VSC can be found on GitHub. Many developers like this and feel part of the community as they can contribute modifications, updates or fixes to the editor’s codebase.
  • It’s Extensible
    Part of the reason that VSC seemed a little under whelming back in 2016 was that the basic editor is pretty minimal. However, there are now over 20,000 extensions available, most on the Visual Studio Code Marketplace which are very easy to install and can significantly enhance the tool. This allows VSC to be customised to a developer’s specific requirements and preferences.
  • It’s Lightweight
    VSC has relatively low memory and processor requirements (unlike some of the larger, bloated IDEs) and can thus be used either on lower specification computers or will have less impact on the performance of other machines when running multiple tools.
  • It’s Fast
    Even when several plugin extensions have been added to VSC it still executes very quickly with little or no lag.
  • It’s Cross Platform
    VSC can be used on Windows, Mac and Linux machines with little or no noticeable differences.
  • It’s Not Complicated
    At its heart VSC is an editor and is thus simpler to work with than some of the commonly used IDEs. It is essentially a file editor with bells and whistles added, rather than an IDE trying to be an integrated development project support environment with an editor component.
  • It’s Easy to Use
    Partly because it is not complicated, but also because it provides a simple to use interface, it is very easy to pick up and be productive.

What does the future hold?

The future already looks bright for VSC with its popularity appearing unassailable given the current crop of editors and IDEs. This is probably only going to be enhanced by the next development for the editor: being hosted within a browser-based environment.

Want to learn more?

Many of our coding training courses allow you to use Visual Studio Code for the hands-on practical exercises. Get in touch to find out how we can help you further. 

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