2014: A great year for developers – and we’re only halfway through

Microsoft, Apple and Google have all made big announcements at their developer conferences. What do they mean for developers and how we design and build applications?
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor
Microsoft set the scene for 2014 at its Build event. Image: Microsoft

We're not quite at the end of June, but the first half of 2014 has delivered plenty of new tools and technologies for a new generation of applications. All three of the major platform ecosystems have made major announcements at their developer events, announcements that go a long way to opening the doors to a truly ubiquitous computing future, merging cloud and mobile.

So what have the highlights been — and, more importantly, what do they mean for us?

Microsoft set the scene at its Build event, with launches of a new open .Net compiler, Roslyn, and a deeper partnership with Xamarin through the new .Net Foundation. A much more open Microsoft has continued to unveil new cloud services and tools, while improving its mobile and desktop platforms. It's in the middle of delivering an intriguing mix of new tools and services, while simultaneously adding new features to its existing toolsets.

One aspect of Microsoft's platform that's getting a lot more attention is Internet Explorer. While it still looks like the IE 11 that shipped with Windows 8.1 last year, Microsoft has quietly changed the way that it updates its browser over the past few months. Instead of big bang releases, it's quietly adding new features and updates to the monthly security patches. You might have thought you were protecting yourself from a black hat somewhere out there, but at the same time you were adding new rendering tools for WebGL and improving browser language support.

A monthly cadence for IE is nothing compared to the rate at which Azure is adding features. The latest, Azure ML, simplifies adding machine learning to your applications, taking advantage of cloud scale servers to give you access to some of the same AI technologies that are being used in Bing and Xbox.

As the Internet of Things expands, we're going to find ourselves swamped with ambient data from our newly ubiquitous sensor platforms. That's where Azure ML comes in, giving us the tools we'll need to analyse and process that data — and to make decisions based on it.

Then there's Apple, with two big OS releases at this year's WWDC. Its cadence may be slower than Microsoft, but its changes are no less radical. Developers get a new language in the Lisp/C/Python hybrid Swift, while other new technologies start breaking down the barriers between desktop and mobile operating systems.

Swift was the biggest Apple news, but it wasn't the development highlight. That accolade had to go to a suite of refreshed and improved iOS and OS X APIs — and the release of a set of new APIs for health and home automation.

If we're going to live in a world of ubiquitous computing we're going to need new tools for accessing and sharing that data, and for controlling the actuators that surround us. We're also going to need better ways of working with the myriad of health sensors that are changing how we think about personal wellness.

Google's I/O only just opened, but it too started to take its platform in new directions, heralding the blending of Android and Chrome OS, and the extension of Android to new devices and use cases. There's a lot to still digest from Google's announcements — what they covered, and just as importantly, what they didn't cover.

Still, it was clear that Android is the endpoint for Google's Internet of Things, with support for sensors in wearable devices, and now integrated into cars and (for the third time, hopefully for Google the charm) in home entertainment. It's also boosting its back end technologies, with new cloud data processing tools — as well as better ways of debugging and profiling cloud applications running at cloud scale.

Looking back on the past six months, with those three ecosystems — and the tools that fit around them, such as Adobe's Creative Cloud — it's clear that we're through one of those points of inflection that permeate our industry. It's no longer about desktop, laptop and server; it's now all about mobility and building on the cloud.

That's a big change for developers, and one that's going to take a few years to finish reshaping how we think about applications. In the past I've talked about how we need to think in terms of services and smart endpoints, and it's clear that now that that's how the platforms we're building on (even the open source world) is looking at things. Google has chosen Android to be its lens onto the new world, while Microsoft and Apple are working on bringing their various platforms closer together — for Apple by sharing information, and for Microsoft by sharing development assets.

Looking at the shape of the IT world, halfway through 2014, it's clear that the foundations have shifted, even for new entrants such as Google. The old guard has left the building, and new engineers are now leading the ecosystems, bringing new ideas and new ways of looking at the world.

A busy first six months of the year, to be sure. Now to find out what happens in the next six.

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