Year in Review: Developing a loyal user base

Those expecting a holy war this year between Microsoft’s .Net tools, Sun's Java and various open source alternatives will have been disappointed, but it’s heartening to see that most of the development options appear to be thriving.

Most developers spoken to by Computerworld this year seemed pleased with their choice of tools — IDEs, frameworks and languages -- though they often ran down the competition at the same time. Developers are usually religious in their choice of environment, though there’s clearly more than one path to development nirvana.

Microsoft says this year’s Tech Ed conference in Auckland in August drew 1250 developers, twice as many as last year. Cliff Reeves, the general manager of Microsoft’s platform strategy group who gave the opening keynote, was keen to let people know that the development future looks bright. Sessions on .Net tools and integrating older systems into new applications were particularly well-attended.

The company created an entirely new platform when it released Office 2003 in October, with greatly improved XML support. Features such as Smart Documents, XML data binding and XSL style support allowed developers to create new Office applications. Microsoft hopes a market will emerge similar to the developer community around the Access database.

C# appears to be popular among .Net developers, who had a choice of several languages including VB.Net, C++ for .Net and J#, a Java-like language. Microsoft also previewed C# 2.0, which is expected early next year.

At the Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles in October Microsoft introduced developers to the underlying technologies of Longhorn, the next version of Windows. Although Longhorn is not expected until about 2006, there was plenty for developers to digest. Longhorn’s three core developer technologies are Avalon, a vector-based rendering engine; Indigo, a communications architecture incorporating improved web services support; and WinFS, the indexed file service based on SQL Server. Conference-goers were enthusiastic.

Meantime, Eclipse, an open source IDE, garnered some serious attention. Version 2.1 was released in April with beefed-up Java support, followed by preview releases of version 3.0 later in the year. Eclipse was originally developed by IBM but garnered support from other companies such as Borland, SAP, Sybase, Oracle, Ericsson and Intel. The project’s very name may have goaded Sun, which considered joining the consortium before eventually deciding in December to continue supporting its own NetBeans tools.

Sun also found itself in competition with another open source project, the JBoss application server. Sun wouldn’t certify JBoss as J2EE-compliant until the JBoss Group ponied up the money to pay for certification, leading to an impasse until November when the Sun and JBoss announced they had reached an agreement to license Sun’s compatibility kit.

Meanwhile, a number of developers split away from the JBoss project and announced their own J2EE app server project called Geronimo, to be released under the Apache licence and submitted for certification by Sun. The JBoss group promptly questioned the provenance of Geronimo source code, proving finally that open source development is still subject to commercial tensions.

Sun previewed a “prototype” version of Java 1.5, including generics, foreach loops and static import.

Development of the much-loved scripting languages continued at a leisurely pace. Python 2.3 was released in July, with a new version of IDLE, its IDE; Perl was updated to version 5.8.2, while development continued on the upcoming Perl 6. Ruby 1.8 was unleashed in August with new language features and functions.

The most popular open source compiler, gcc, was updated to version 3.3 in October.

Even Microsoft was enthusiastically releasing source code. In April Redmond surprised many when it released almost all of the source to Windows CE. Microsoft had several versions of its “shared source” licence; shared source manager Jason Matusow told Computerworld that a licence would be chosen to suit a product’s market.

“We have no intention of eviscerating our business model around source code access; at the same time, if there’s a clear customer benefit to be had, we will definitely go down that path.”

Lots of development news from Microsoft and open source vendors, then. Third parties were hardly excluded, however. Borland made a point of supporting as many environments as possible, releasing products such as JBuilder X and Delphi 8 for the .Net Framework. In September chief strategist Peter Coad told Computerworld that Borland supports other vendors, but provides an alternative for those who don't want to entrust their development strategy to one company.

"Even if you're dealing with one of those rascals you get some distance," he says. "Our clients find that a reassuring thing. It's proven good for them, actually."

Kylix, Borland’s version of Delphi for Linux, however, seemed not to be well-adopted and at the end of the year its future appeared uncertain.

In October Apple released an updated version of its development environment, called Xcode. The Xcode tools were bundled with Mac OS X 10.3, although they weren't part of the default install. New in this version were distributed builds, code completion, a redesigned IDE and gcc 3.3.

Local company Jade Software had a year of contrasts. In July, the company celebrated the release of Jade 6 by slashing the per-seat cost of development licences from $6400 to zero, hoping to attract more developers. The new model came too late to prevent some job cuts, however: the next month Jade announced it would lay off 70-80 staff.

The lasting recollection of 2003 for developers may not be about code creation at all but intellectual property. Lawyers examined the development process like never before. SCO led the way in June when it pointed to an archived email in which Linus Torvalds apparently discouraged developers from considering the origins of source code. The smoking gun? Probably not, since a reading of the entire correspondence shows SCO had taken Torvalds' comments out of context, but nevertheless it was a clear warning to developers that decisions they make can be placed under a legal spotlight.

Linux advocates returned the favour, pointing at code contributions made by SCO developers before the company embarked on its legal adventures. The dispute remained acrimonious at year's end.

The point was reinforced in August when a US court told Microsoft to pay Eolas $US521 million for patent infringement. Eolas' controversial patent covered objects in web documents. Critics lambasted the decision, claiming that the Eolas patent relied upon the groundbreaking, unpatented work of the web's original creators.

That's no legal defence, of course, so attention shifted to demonstrating that Eolas had attempted to patent an obvious "invention". Happily, the US patent office agreed to reconsider the patent, but the case showed how legal considerations can impact on the development process.

Most developers prefer the keyboard to the witness stand. Let's hope in 2004 they get to crank more great code.

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