Google Project IDX remote development environment now in open beta – but without iOS simulator

Google Project IDX remote development environment now in open beta – but without iOS simulator

Google has opened its Project IDX browser-based remote development environment to public beta, as well as adding integration with Gemini AI, Firebase hosting, Google Maps and deployment with Cloud Run.

The cloud giant’s I/O conference took place yesterday in Mountain View, California, and among the developer announcements was the news that Project IDX is now in open beta for what director of engineering and developer experience Erin Kidwell called “full-stack, AI-powered, multi-platform development.”

Project IDX is based on Code OSS, an open source build of the same code used for Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code (VS Code), and has been in private preview since August 2023. An IDX workspace (project) runs on an ephemeral virtual machine (VM) in Google Cloud, so developers get a complete remote development environment configured with Nix so that it is defined in code and reproducible. Signing up for the free Google Developer Program gets a developer up to 5 workspaces. A workspace can be linked to a GitHub repository. Workspaces can also be shared with other developers.

Gemini, Google’s AI model, is baked into Project IDX, providing AI code chat including the ability to generate code, explain code, translate into another language, and write unit tests.

Project IDX includes an Android emulator, enabling live preview of both mobile and web applications. The private beta included an iOS simulator, but this has disappeared, with a member of the team stating that “we are exploring ways of bringing this back in the future, but we don’t have anything to share right now.” This is a significant omission for a cross-platform development tool.

The dashboard does include templates for apps using a variety of frameworks, including Angular, Flutter, Next.js, React, Svelte, Vue, Go, and even .NET Blazor, despite this being a Microsoft technology. Java applications are possible by editing the Nix configuration, though no built-in template is currently provided. Extension support is included but because this is not VS Code itself, must come from the Open VSX Registry for VS Code compatible editors, and not from the VS Code marketplace.

Debugging a Flutter application in Project IDX

Google has added integration with its services, including Firebase hosting, Cloud Run deployment, Google Maps, and the Gemini API. Coming soon is integration with Checks, which automates analysis of the code for compliance issues such as privacy breaches. The environment also hooks into Chrome developer tools including Lighthouse, which audits performance, accessibility, and search optimization.

Firebase Genkit offers a framework for building AI applications, while still in private preview is Firebase Data Connect, which offers a SQL database using PostgreSQL. Project IDX will include a local instance of PostgreSQL for development. 

We signed up for Project IDX and were quickly up and running with applications based on the supplied templates. The commonality with VS Code makes it easy to get started, for those familiar with this ubiquitous editor. 

How does Project IDX handle a developer’s confidential data? Enabling AI assistance raises a dialog informing the developer that “when you use generative AI features in IDX, Google collects chat text, prompts, related code, generated output, related feature usage information, and your feedback.” This is classified as “AI feature data”, and the company also warns that “human reviewers read, annotate and process a sample of your AI feature data,” though it is disconnected from the developer’s Google Account. Highlighted in bold is an instruction not to include sensitive, confidential or personal information – and therefore care is needed not to add real data or secrets such as passwords into Project IDX code.

AI Feature Data as defined by Google will be gathered and may be read by humans

If that level of data gathering is acceptable, Project IDX does currently offer plenty of value even for free users.

This initiative also means that Google is investing in a development environment using the foundations of VS Code, as well as the JetBrains-based Android studio. Project IDX is aimed at cross-platform, full stack development, whereas if developing for Android alone, Android Studio is Google’s primary IDE. Project IDX does not include templates for Java or Kotlin-based Android applications. That said, the remote development capabilities of Product IDX, and the simplicity of getting started, are attractive features versus full Android Studio.