Developer Year in Review: 2011 Edition

This year brought us triumphs and tragedies, new companies born and old ones burning out. Before DWiR takes a holiday hiatus, we’re going to look back on the high points of the year that was.

Mobile gains ground

Smartphones

Lost in all the news about lawsuits, patents and speculation was the overarching theme for mobile this year: it has become the primary software platform for many users. The desktop may not be dead, but it’s definitely showing its age, and as smartphones and tablets become ubiquitous, the amount of time the average consumer spends in front of a keyboard is declining rapidly.

The good news for software developers is that the maturing app store model has opened up software distribution to a much larger pool of potential software makers. The bad news is that it has also drastically reset the expectation of how much consumers are willing to spend for apps, although prices are climbing marginally. A $ 1 app can make you a lot of money if you can get millions of users to buy it, but it won’t even get you a nice night on the town if you’re writing for a niche market.

With RIM’s Blackberry market share doing a good imitation of an Olympic high diver, and the new Windows mobile platform not yet gaining significant traction, 2011 was essentially a two-horse race, with Android passing iOS for the first time in new sales. Apple is crying all the way to the bank, though, as the profit margin on iOS devices is pushing Apple’s bottom line to new highs and overall unit sales continue to climb steadily. At least for the moment, the smartphone market is not a zero-sum game.

This year also marked the release of Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) for Android and iOS 5 for the iPhone/iPad/iPod. ICS is the first version of Android that is making serious efforts to tame the tablet situation, but there have been widespread complaints that carriers are slow to pick it up, even in new models. Objective-C developers are finally getting to say goodbye to old friends like retain, release and autorelease, as Apple rolled out the automatic reference count compiler. Few tears were shed for their passing.

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The year of HTML5

In future years, 2011 will be remembered as the year Adobe put up the white flag and joined the HTML5 bandwagon, which started an industry death-watch for Flash. Microsoft also sent out signals that Silverlight was being put out to pasture and that it planned to embrace HTML5 as well.

The stampede to adopt HTML5 was prompted, in part, by the increasing robustness of the standard and the implementations of the standard in browsers. It also didn’t hurt that it is the only Rich Internet Application platform that will run on the iPad.

Dru-who and Ha-what?

Two packages with funny names became the hot skills to have on your resume this year. Drupal continued to gain popularity as a content management platform, while Apache Hadoop was the must-have technology for data crunching. By the end of the year, developers with experience in either were in short supply and could basically write their own tickets.

Languages emerge, but few stick

It seems like every year, there’s a new batch of languages that promise to be the next Big Thing. In past years, the crown has been worn by Scala, Erlang, Clojure and others. But when it comes time to start a project or hire developers, skills in new languages are rarely high on the list of priorities for companies.

This year, Google joined the fun, promoting both Go and Dart. Like most new languages, they face an uphill battle, even with Google’s massive resources behind them. Few have what it takes to fight the institutional inertia of existing development decisions and to join winners such as Ruby in the pantheon of well-adopted emerging languages.

Some general thoughts to end the year

The computer industry, more than most others, can make you feel very old at a relatively young age. I’ve been hacking, in one form or another, for nearly 35 years, and the technology I used in my youth seems like it belongs in another universe.

The flip side of this is that I’m constantly amazed by what science and technology brings forth on a seemingly daily basis. Whether it’s having a conversation with a device I can hold in the palm of my hand or watching the aurora light up the heavens, seen from above by occupants of the ISS, I often seem to be living in the future I read about as a kid.

As a species, we may be prone to pettiness, violence, willful ignorance and hatred, but once in a while, we manage to pull ourselves out of the muck and do something insanely great. Let’s attempt to honor the vision of an admittedly imperfect man we lost this year and try to make 2012 insanely greater.

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