2012: The Year in Application Development

Native vs. Web, the rise of GitHub, hard truths for HTML5 -- here's a look back at the year in programming trends

2012: The year in app dev

Where users go, developers will follow. And that means software development in 2012 continued to become increasingly mobile-centric.

While Windows and desktop Web development ruled just a few short years ago, developers now have to get on the mobile bandwagon and build for tablets and smartphones, with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android the leading platforms of choice.

Of course, mobile was not the only major theme for software development in 2012. Technologies like GitHub, Microsoft’s Visual Studio, and the venerable Java platform also grabbed their share of headlines, including Java attracting unwanted attention for security woes.

Read on for a roundup of 2012’s top trends for developers.

A fundamental schism for mobile development

With interest in iOS and Android development shifting to near parity in 2012 (pictured), the center of debate for mobile developers shifted from Android vs. iPhone, to native vs. the mobile Web. Spurring this shift has been an increased desire for portability across mobile platforms, coupled with an increased interest in tapping functionality and performance afforded only to apps native to the device.

Along the way, three “golden paths” for mobile development have begun to cohere around native, Web, and hybrid app development, met by an increasing host of mobile development tools options to choose from.

Bumps in the road, but the HTML5 juggernaut rolls on

This native vs. mobile Web debate shed further light on the hard truths of HTML5, which suffered a setback when Facebook revealed it was going native with its iOS application and backed off of HTML5, citing performance as a critical factor in making the switch. Mobile development tools vendor Appcelerator also found widespread dissatisfaction with HTML5 in a survey of developers (chart at left).

That said, HTML5 continues to advance in interest and adoption. Firefox in 2012 promoted Firefox OS, its planned HTML5-based mobile OS. And Adobe, proprietor of HTML5 rival Flash, continued to make accommodations for HTML5 in its tools.

Meanwhile, 2012 saw increasingly sophisticated use of the HTML5 spec in top-flight apps.

Objective-C now a top language

Being the language of choice for building applications for iOS tablets and smartphones, the continued rise of Objective-C provided little surprise in 2012. The Tiobe Programming Community Index, which gauges the popularity of languages by examining search engines and other sites, saw Objective-C overtake C++ this year to rank third in the index, behind C and Java -- giving Objective-C the inside track on repeating as Tiobe’s Language of the Year in 2012.  

Tiobe did see C++, C, and Java rise in the mobile space as well, but not as much as Objective-C.

Mobile app stores prominent

Placement of mobile applications in online app stores is now an established distribution mechanism, and Google Play, featuring Android titles, made strides against Apple’s venerable App Store, although Apple’s entrant maintained a 4X lead in revenues over Google Play, according to market analysis firm App Annie (pictured). Verizon, however, made the decision that it would shut down its Verizon Apps app store, with users having opted for other vendors’ stores. Enterprise businesses, meanwhile, are now setting up their own internal app stores to distribute software for devices.

RIM slips while waiting for BlackBerry 10

RIM BlackBerry used to rule the roost in the smartphone realm, but that has changed dramatically. Appcelerator in its survey saw record-low interest in the platform on the part of developers (chart at left, depicting percentage of interest among developers surveyed). There could be light at the end of the tunnel next month, though, when the QNX-based BlackBerry 10 OS is set to arrive. Developers are optimistic about the upgrade and its UI improvements and development options.

Java: One step forward, two steps back

For the established Java language and platform, 2012 had its ups but mostly downs. The reappearance of Java founder James Gosling at this year’s JavaOne conference in October (pictured at left; video) certainly was a feel-good moment. Oracle also pushed Java for Mac OS and JavaFX and extended support for Java 6. But Java in 2012 will best be remembered as becoming a darling of cyber-attackers, with some security pros advising users to just ditch Java altogether. Despite its vulnerabilities, developers were inclined to stick with Java

GitHub gets a huge investment

Software infrastructure, such as code-hosting facilities, can at face value seem like dry plumbing, only interesting to the developers who rely on it. But the GitHub code-hosting and sharing site enthused investors at the Andreessen Horowitz venture capital firm enough to invest $100 million in the site. GitHub, based on the open source Git software version control system developed by Linux founder Linus Torvalds, has become the “de facto social network for programmers,” Andreessen Horowitz general partner Peter Levine said.  

Microsoft updates Visual Studio ... again

Major updates to the Microsoft’s bread-and-butter Visual Studio software development platform have been arriving roughly every two years, which meant one was due this year. And it arrived in August with the availability of Visual Studio 2012. The package gives a nod to the new Windows 8 OS as well as Windows RT. The company also offered free Express editions of Visual Studio, geared to Windows 8, Web, and desktop development. Meanwhile, Silverlight, the company’s proprietary rich Internet plug-in technology, kept fading into the background. Like Adobe’s Flash, Silverlight is being relegated to the background in favor of HTML5. There have been no new releases of Silverlight since December 2011, when Microsoft released version 5. No releases have been announced since.

PaaS options rising

PaaS (platform as a service), in which developers deploy applications to clouds fitted with support for a particular set of programming languages, is catching on with vendors, both major and upstarts alike. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, VMware, Cloudbees, and Salesforce.com all ramped up their PaaS offerings in 2012. Meanwhile, Oracle made an investment in Ruby cloud provider Engine Yard, and EMC looks to be spinning off Pivotal from VMware, which will group together projects ranging from the Spring Framework for Java to the Cloud Foundry PaaS. Both of these moves have been viewed as a play for developer mindshare.