Open SourceMozilla Skywriter Becomes Part of Cloud Editor

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The Mozilla Skywriter project is no more. It’s moving from Mozilla, and the code is being integrated into the Cloud9 Editor (ACE).

Skywriter is a Mozilla Labs project to build a Web editor for the cloud. The project was first called Bespin, a reference to the cloud city from Star Wars.

Mozilla’s decision to end Skywriter as a Mozilla Labs effort does not mean the end of development for Skywriter-based technology, however. Still, it is indicative of a shift in focus at Mozilla that has occurred during the past year.

“The big change that happened is that Mozilla has said that we need to put more oomph behind our developer tools effort and get more things into Firefox and get more of a community built up around building developer tools for Firefox,” Kevin Dangoor, manager of developer tools at Mozilla, told “For those of us working on Skywriter, that became the bigger picture.”

Dangoor noted that the original plan was to still continue working on Skywriter as an embeddable code editor. Instead the Skywriter team met the development team from Cloud9 Editor and realized that there were many synergies in merging the two efforts.

“We had wanted to do a server side component and the way that had built Cloud9 IDE is exactly what we wanted to do,” Dangoor said. “The server side component was not that critical to our plans, so we decided to see what we could do together and so far it’s been great.”

Mozilla is using Skywriter already as part of the Mozilla add-on builder service that was formerly known as Flightdeck. The add-on builder enables users to use their browser as an interface to create Firefox extensions. Dangoor noted that add-on builder will be moving to the new ACE code soon.

At Mozilla, the Skywriter project had three full-time developers working on it as well as some outside contributors. As a result of the merger with the ACE project, Dangoor is hopeful that more developers will join the effort to the new editor moving forward.

In terms of the Skywriter code merging with ACE, Dangoor explained that both projects have compatible open source licenses. As such, there are no problems with the Skywriter code being included with ACE.

“We had fully intended to have Skywriter as a separate project from ACE, but it just so happened that when we got all the code together, it just all ended up in the ACE repository,” Dangoor said. “We were collectively happy with what we had built — we had expected that there would be additional things that Skywriter would add, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.”

One of the key changes between what Mozilla had been building with Skywriter and what ACE offers is the use of the browser DOM instead of Canvas to deliver the editor. The Canvas tag is an emerging HTML5-driven specification that isn’t yet supported on all browsers.

“Canvas is really meant as a drawing surface and the main thing that made Skywriter fast is that it focused on drawing just the part of the file that the user is looking at,” Dangoor said. “ACE takes the same approach with DOM nodes.”

Dangoor noted that browsers have become increasingly fast with DOM. He added that ACE uses layers to support different features and takes advantage of features that browsers already have for performance.

Browser-based Web Dev Tools on the Rise

The market for browser-based code editors has grown since Mozilla first announced the Bespin project in 2009. Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is now using an embeddable Web editor from Code Mirror as part of its Google Code project hosting. The Eclipse Foundation is working on its own Web-based editor called Orion.

“Competition is one of those things that shows that there is a market,” Dangoor said.

Looking beyond Mozilla’s involvement in ACE, he is building a roadmap for future Mozilla developer tools in 2011. He explained that developer tools is no longer part of Mozilla Labs, but is now part of the Firefox group.

“Firefox is our delivery mechanism for helping the open Web to have great development tools,” Dangoor said.

He added that tools will include new ways for Web designers to look at the DOM as well as CSS. New debugging tools for JavaScript are also likely to land on the roadmap as well.

“One of the big components that I want to see us do this year is a developer tools SDK for Firefox,” Dangoor said. “So that people that want to build developer tools have easy APIs to do that.”

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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