Web Standards Win, Windows Whimpers in 2012

In keeping with tradition, it's time once again to dust off my crystal ball and see what the coming year will bring for software developers. Mind you, the spirits don't always offer the clearest vision of the tech industry, but they didn't let us down too badly last time around. Let's see what they have to offer for 2012.

Windows 8 slouches to market

Naturally, Windows 8 will loom large in the coming year, though it will be notable more for the uncertainty it creates than for any new features it brings. Microsoft has remained mum on an exact release date, but I expect it will rally to make sure the new OS ships for the holiday season, with a beta release appearing by April. That doesn't mean it will make any great splash when it arrives, though.

For developers, the most significant features of Windows 8 are Metro and WinRT. Although these technologies point to a new road forward for Windows developers, I expect Metro-style apps will be far less popular than Microsoft would like. Microsoft will do its best to have the Windows Market filled with apps by the time Windows 8 launches, but the actual results will fall short of expectations.

That's because Metro is something of a Catch-22. The stripped-down Metro UI might appeal to tablet users, but we don't even know if there's a market for Windows 8 tablets yet. On the other hand, Metro-style apps can be frustrating for desktop and notebook users, who still represent the vast majority of the Windows base. Lacking a clear audience for their apps, developers will have little reason to be enthusiastic about Metro -- and lacking a large catalog of high-quality apps to choose from, customers won't have much reason to be enthusiastic, either.

All in all, I expect the response to the Windows 8 launch to be muted. It won't be a Vista-style bomb, but it won't have anything like the reception of Windows 7, either. Sales of Ultrabooks might give it some momentum, but users who are content with Windows 7 will see little reason to upgrade their current machines.

Web standards everywhere

Windows 8 will be significant as a footnote to a larger trend, however, which is the industrywide move toward open Web standards. From Metro to Adobe AIR, mobile operating systems, the cloud, and beyond, HTML and its related technologies are absolutely everywhere, and they will become only more important in the coming year. Consider 2012 the Year of Web Standards.

Ironically, perhaps, this will mean the HTML5 hype will finally cool down a bit, as users come to understand that HTML5 isn't the "next big thing," but a mature technology that pervades their computing experience. As buzzwords go, HTML will follow the same trajectory as XML.

The real stars of 2012 won't be HTML5 and JavaScript per se, but their related APIs and technologies, which are only now being finalized. We'll see Local Storage start to catch on in a way that Google Gears never really did, but the one you'll hear most about will be WebGL, once developers realize it's good for more than just 3D graphics.

To take advantage of the new stuff, however, users need modern browsers. All the major browser vendors have adopted aggressive upgrade policies, and as a result we'll see the market share of obsolete browsers like Internet Explorer 6 finally dwindle in 2012. But the real winner will be Chrome: Google's browser handles Web standards best, and users are already starting to realize it. I predict the coming year will see Chrome emerge as the second most popular browser on the Web, beating both Firefox and Safari.

Chrome will dazzle in another way, too. Expect Google to release a much-improved version of its Native Client technology in 2012, along with impressive demo applications. Developers may be skeptical about NaCl, but users who pay attention will like what they see.

Mobile platforms start working together

Mobility will remain a hot area for developers, but increasingly the emphasis will be on finding ways to make cross-platform development efficient and practical. Xamarin will generate some good buzz with its Xamarin Mobile framework, but the one to watch will be Adobe Systems, which I predict will make mobile development its key area of focus for 2012.

Along similar lines, I expect Microsoft to finally bow to pressure and offer an SDK that allows developers to use native code in their Windows Phone apps. Currently, Windows Phone is the only smartphone OS that lacks support for code written in C/C++, making it an unduly difficult target for cross-platform apps and games.

The shakeout of mobile OS platforms that began in 2011 will continue through 2012, and this time the big loser will be Research in Motion. There was a glimmer of hope for RIM when it announced its new, revamped BlackBerry 10 OS, but it has since revealed it doesn't expect to ship any BlackBerry 10 smartphones until late 2012. If that's true, it will prove disastrous. Expect to see RIM start looking for ways to exit the smartphone business in the coming year, including licensing its patented technologies to other OS makers.

Programming languages on trial

In the world of programming languages, I don't foresee any significant changes. Google surprised us with Dart this year, and the company says it plans to ship a final version of Go in early 2012, but I predict neither language will gain much traction. Dart's advantages over JavaScript are significant for very large projects only, and it has little hope of gaining support from other browser makers. As for Go, because it compiles to native binaries, it doesn't really compete with C# or Java, while C and C++ are so entrenched in the systems programming niche that they'll be hard to displace.

Java 7 shipped this year, so we won't see another major release in 2012, but work will continue toward a Java 8 release in 2013. That doesn't mean there won't be drama in the Java camp, though. Testimony will begin in Oracle's litigation against Google over the Android virtual machine implementation, a case of supreme significance to the entire Java community. But don't expect any resolution next year. I predict this case will be as protracted and contentious as the SCO Group's attack on Linux -- so grab some popcorn.

Overall, this will be an interesting year for software developers -- not exactly explosive, perhaps, but more exciting than 2011 in many respects. But then, the spirits could have led me astray this time. To find out, stick with me through 2012. Happy New Year!

This article, "Web standards win, Windows whimpers in 2012," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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