Peering into the Software Development Crystal Ball

What would the New Year be without that time-honored publishing tradition: predictions? By the time you read this post it will be January already, but as I write it the champagne corks have yet to pop, so there's still time for me to gaze into my crystal ball. Right or wrong? Only time will tell. But here are a few thoughts as to what 2009 might have in store for the software development market.

Microsoft struggles to retool its image
Expect more overtures from Redmond toward the open source community as Microsoft continues to try to soften its image as an anticompetitive thug. We may even see an interesting Microsoft product or two running on Linux by year's end.

Interest in Windows Azure and related cloud computing technologies will continue to grow throughout 2009, but Microsoft should watch its step. The meaning of "cloud computing" is opaque enough already. Microsoft shouldn't muddy the waters further by being too liberal with ambiguous marketing terms such as "mesh" and "live," the way it did with .Net.

Also, Microsoft's "software plus services" concept is a strong direction, but it needs to be sure that its developer ecosystem comes along for the ride. As Steve Ballmer so famously observed, Microsoft achieved much of its success through the hard work of its ISV partners. Those partners need to be reassured that they won't be reduced to sharecroppers in Microsoft's service-oriented vision of the software market.

But of course, the big distraction next year will be Windows 7. If Microsoft can't get its OS house in order, it's going to have a hard time convincing developers of the value of its new technologies. More than Ray Ozzie's vision of the future, the company's ability to hold its core products together will be the ultimate test of Microsoft Anno Bill.

Java moves toward an open source mindset
Oracle's acquisition of BEA Systems made it one of the largest players in the Java application server market. But it's still too early to say how BEA customers have weathered the transition. Some might not appreciate their contracts being subsumed into Larry Ellison's software juggernaut.

On the other hand, the Red Hat/JBoss merger has proven to be a comfortable match for most JBoss customers, the majority of whom were Linux users to begin with. And Red Hat shows a strong interest in Java; for example, it has put considerable effort into the IcedTea project, a fork of OpenJDK that improves upon Sun's open source Java stack.

The major proprietary app server vendors are likely to continue to dominate the market in 2009, but expect the movement in favor of 100-percent open source Java stacks to grow as the year rolls on. As awareness of Java's new, open source status spreads, expect developers to view the technology in a different light and begin choosing their vendors accordingly.

Twilight for Sun Microsystems?
Pity poor Sun. Floating the idea of its software installed base as a marketing channel was a gutsy play, but in light of current economic conditions it was woefully mistimed -- as so many of Sun's recent moves have been.

JavaFX is interesting technology, but it's too arcane and far too late to the party to become a serious competitor to Adobe or Microsoft. And as a mobile platform it's stillborn; Adobe has struggled for years to make Flash a major player in the U.S. mobile space, to little success. By comparison, a Sun-dominated smartphone applications market is a pipe dream -- particularly given Apple's well-documented disinterest in Java for the iPhone.

No, my fear is that 2009 may see the beginnings of the Big Cataclysm for Sun. Executive change could be in the cards, but what top talent would risk taking on such a toxic company now? Sun's best option may be simply to sell itself off -- piece by piece, if it has to. Big Blue already does as good a job of marketing and selling Sun's technologies as Sun does. Maybe Sun could become a subsidiary of IBM Labs?

The Web loses its version number
When budgets are tight, the best option is to make use of the technologies you already have and the ones you can get for free. For today's business applications, that means the Web, which will continue its rise as the dominant development platform.

While the Web itself won't lose any popularity, however, expect a little less emphasis on the "Web 2.0" moniker in 2009. For starters, it hardly means anything anymore -- if it ever did. But AJAX and related technologies still haven't proven their value for a lot of enterprise applications, beyond adding UI flash. What Web 2.0 capabilities do make their way into business applications will be the result of open source toolkits such as Dojo, while proprietary products are likely to fall by the wayside -- and that means the marketing hype will cool down a little, too.

And I expect the same will be true of Microsoft's Silverlight. Microsoft isn't likely to woo many significant partners to the platform when Flash's reach is so much wider. Adobe wisely began trying to bridge the gap between designers and developers years ago, and its efforts will keep paying off in the New Year. While developers will continue to pay Silverlight lip service, 2009 will show it to be the HD-DVD of the Web: a nice idea, but not the one that wins.

The economy looms large
Ultimately, economic conditions will play a huge role in how 2009 pans out for the developer community. When customers aren't buying, tool vendors don't innovate -- so don't expect many groundbreaking new technologies to debut this year.

Among enterprise customers, tightening budgets are likely to put the kibosh on many an ambitious new project. But smart companies will realize that process automation is one of the best ways to reduce costs in any business. Now may actually be the ideal time to revisit old software schemes that got shelved back when staffing budgets were flush. Layoffs and hiring freezes will mean there are fewer developers to go around, however, which could make smart projects infeasible for the time being.

On the plus side, while offshoring of development projects will continue among larger companies with well-established overseas divisions, I predict emphasis on offshoring will decrease among smaller companies and first-time customers. Smaller shops won't want to look like villains during the downtimes, especially when local talent is abundant in and willing to work cheap.

See you all in '09!

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