Software development: Winners and losers 2009

The year that loved smartphones, scripting languages, the cloud, and open source was not always kind to developers


Computers got smaller, databases got bigger and HTML's dominance grew in 2009. None of these trends are new, and some of these changes are as old as computers themselves, but the magnitudes are greater or smaller than ever before.

Here are the winners and losers we spotted on the software development landscape in 2009. For the programmers, alas, many of the year's ups had downsides.

Winner: Smartphones

Smartphones took over the centre of gravity for many consumer applications. The Apple iPhone appears to be the most successful product launch in computing history, and its vibrant app marketplace continues to be the biggest attention sponge for all of us. While many apps are pretty dumb and developers can't think of enough bad words for Apple's Vader-esque grip on the marketplace, it's clear that the pocket-sized computers will be the hottest focus for developers.

Google's Android, Palm's webOS, and Nokia's Symbian hope to compete by being a bit more open, but no one knows if this will overcome Apple's commanding lead. The real secret may lie in WebKit-focused Web applications because the same open source browser implementation is running on many of the best smartphones.

Loser: Desktops

Desktops aren't gone, but they are certainly forgotten. If it weren't for their luxurious screen real estate and plus-sized keyboards that allow you to type more than one or two words per hour, no one would use them at all.

Game makers are fleeing to the consoles, office applications are turning to the Web, and Google is deciding whether we will spend more of our time with a Google Android smartphone or a Google Chrome OS smartbook. Even bloggers are turning to the thumb-friendly 140-character limit at Twitter. Did we ever use PCs for anything else?

Winner: Web applications

Somewhere there's a grandfather explaining to a young twerp that in his day, they would "install" software on a computer. Web-based applications are more dominant than ever, and it's not just for programs that coordinate everyone with a centralized database.

Kids are writing their homework in browser-based word processors and turning it in without saving it on that hard disk thing that once destroyed Grandpa's project two hours before the big presentation for the Jenkins account. The new embedded databases in the browser that serve for local storage make it even less likely that anyone will use the local OS directly.

That may be why Google has the chutzpah to call its nifty new Chrome browser a full-fledged "operating system," even though the only thing that appears after you boot up is the browser itself.

Loser: Desktop metaphor

Remember the icons that looked just like file folders or pieces of paper? Weren't they the bee's knees? It turns out that they were just here to help the humans in the next step on our journey to being full cyborgs. Now everyone is happy with some inscrutable five or six random alphanumeric characters stuck after some random domain name registered in Libya ( or Montserrat ( Welcome to the future, THX 1138.

Winner: Open source software

No one thought an open source company would ever be worth $1 billion, but now that Sun owns MySQL, it is about to sell itself to Oracle for $7 billion and change. Sure, the server hardware business is nice and Java is a wonderful brand, but everyone assumes that the meat of the deal lies in control of the MySQL copyrights.

That's why the Europeans are so concerned. MySQL's success with marketing itself by giving away copies is one of the big reasons that open source is now the dominant business model for many companies. Even the most proprietary companies have found ways to emulate most of the openness by creating licenses like "shared source" and "developer's editions."

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