It wasn't so hard to work out how to use the IDE. I've started using the Microchip MPLab X IDE rather than their online web offering because the native install includes simulation capability. I was wrong when I earlier thoughts that there was a charge for the local install and or the XC8 compiler. There is no charge. I installed the XC8 first then I installed the IDE and it was no effort.
I read the bit of guide http://microchip.wikidot.com/xpress:gpiointroduction explaining how to select which pins will do what and setup the device as shown below. (See document chapter "Locking pins as GPIO")
Once that was done I figured out how to generate a starter project and then wrote a very simple program wth a control loop that read the 8 bit input and setup the display control lines.
I need to get on with creating a PCB for this and I'll take some design elements from my previous seven segment module plus improvements.