And then, six years later…

15 March 2012

Way back on the Ides of March 2006, I started at DevExpress in my current position of CTO (“What? Stuck? No promotions since then?” Etc.). Six years to the day.

A lot of things have happened during that time but, rather than look back in a semi self-congratulatory way (which, after all, is boring to anyone but me), I want to look forward over the next few years – in essence the remit of what a CTO should do: identifying trends and technologies to watch and follow. To be honest, though, my predictions aren’t really going to impress anyone who already follows the tech news and blogs. And, yes, I dare say there’ll be some “well, if the CTO is saying *this*, why the heck are DevExpress doing *that*” moments.

Crystal ballFirst off, the big thing is the move away from desktops and laptops to tablets. We’re already seeing this trend in the retail space: Horace Dediu in Asymco, using some very conservative assumptions, recently estimated that sales of tablet units would overtake sales of traditional PCs in fall 2013, some eighteen months away. [When will tablets outsell traditional PCs?]. Already we are starting to see what’s become known as the Consumerization of IT, where workers, especially knowledge workers and upper echelons of management, want to use their own smartphones and tablets in their work. IT departments are putting into place the required infrastructure and applications (especially security-related) in order to cater to this trend. [Consumerization Of IT: Getting Beyond The Myths].

Second, we are starting to see a more pragmatic view to supporting all these new devices. No longer is it a 95% Windows world out there: the Mac is becoming more prominent, and of course these mobile devices all have different OSes (there’s iOS, Android, the forked Kindle Fire Android, and, soon, WinRT and WOA (Windows on ARM). Either your development team becomes proficient in many different OSes, IDEs, run-time environments, or you hire islands of expertise to cater for mobile, or you target the common denominator: the browser. And that means HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript. [Will HTML5 replace native apps? It might: here's how to figure out when]. Yes, I know full HTML5 support is spotty at the moment, but the spec is due this time next year, JavaScript Harmony possibly at around the same time, and the browsers are being updated on a schedule faster than ours. And don’t forget the whole world of the hybrid app (HTML5/CSS3/JavaScript with some run-time libraries that access the features of the device).

Third, given that premise, I see a massive rise in the utilization of open-source software. Already, after maybe a year or so of meteoric rise, jQuery has become the de facto client-side library to use. It’s almost part of the JavaScript run-time, it’s so ubiquitous. The big thing that has still yet to consolidate though is the whole UI on the web. Yes, there are numerous open source (and even commercial) client-side UI libraries out there, all of them in the middle of a bonanza of development it seems, but no single one is dominant. Google have even started a very early draft of a specification for Web Components on the W3C site. [Web Components Explained]. I dare say given major funding from Microsoft, Google, Apple or any combination of the three, we’ll see one of the open-source UI libraries gain ascendancy, just as jQuery rose to its prominent position.

Fourth, since open-source libraries will start to dominate, I think we’ll be seeing a lot more work from vendors to enhance the development experience. In other words, sure, your controls are free and freely available, but you’re going to need some better tooling to write those web applications. Tools for designing and branding, for sophisticated data binding, for offline use, for debugging, for testing, for support, all those things that you forget need to be done when, in your enthusiasm for the free, you jump into the morass of client-side web development. Hand-crafting markup is tedious and pretty much equivalent to writing in assembly language. I’m not saying that vendors won’t be able to sell their own controls, as DevExpress continues to do, but that the development infrastructure for those controls will become more important.

Fifth, alongside the move to better web applications, the need for storing data in the cloud (and sharing it once it’s there) will become much more important. Not only the ability to store files in the cloud, but have web services providing data from cloud servers, to have and use a database in the cloud, etc, etc. Whether we’re talking about Amazon, Rackspace, Microsoft, or even Apple, the day of the cloud has yet to really reach us, but with the advent of more and more mobile always-on and always-connected devices, the cloud will become of strategic importance.

Sixth, I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: we shall continue to see the rise of the UX designer as being a primary part of any application. We consumers have been way spoiled with our devices and the UX on them and we shall continue to be. Our other applications: at work, or online, had better keep up. We want better ways of displaying and manipulating our data. We no longer want to be surprised by our interfaces, or have to read documentation on how to use them. The day of the grid is perhaps over, but there is no great contender interface to replace it just yet; it still has to be devised and invented.

Now, I’m not trying to say that any of this will come to pass in 2012. Of course not. Current platforms and development environments will be with us for a few more years yet. But I reckon that in, say, three or four years’ time (when I’ll be ten, as it were), perhaps with some of it in 2013, writing rich client-side applications targeting HTML5 will become as prevalent as writing native apps today.

Of course, DevExpress will continue to monitor these trends and others and make our plans accordingly, but rest assured we’re not going to suddenly abandon our current platforms. Indeed our philosophy is to strengthen them by providing tools, libraries, and controls that bridge what you know now and this brave new world.

Let’s see what develops.

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