07 October 2013
The short answer to the question of whether the Microsoft .NET Framework (and its related tools and technologies) has a future is of course, don’t be silly.
The reality is that successful technologies take years, usually decades, perhaps longer, to fade away. Most people would be shocked at how much of the world runs on RPG, COBOL, FORTRAN, C, and C++ – all languages that became obsolete decades ago. Software written in these languages runs on mainframes and minicomputers (also obsolete decades ago) as well as more modern hardware in some cases. Of course in reality mainframes and minicomputers are still manufactured, so perhaps they aren’t technically “obsolete” except in our minds.
It is reasonable to assume that .NET (and Java) along with their primary platforms (Windows and Unix/Linux) will follow those older languages into the misty twilight of time. And that such a thing will take years, most likely decades, perhaps longer, to occur.
I think it is critical to understand that point, because if you’ve built and bet your career on .NET or Java it is good to know that nothing is really forcing you to give them up. Although your chosen technology is already losing (or has lost) its trendiness, and will eventually become extremely obscure, it is a pretty safe bet that you’ll always have work. Even better, odds are good that your skills will become sharply more valuable over time as knowledgeable .NET/Java resources become more rare.
How will this fading of .NET/Java technology relevance occur?
To answer I’ll subdivide the software world into two parts: client devices and servers.
On client devices (PCs, laptops, ultrabooks, tablets, phones, etc.) I feel the need to further split into two parts: consumer apps and business apps. Yes, I know that people seem to think there’s no difference, but as I’ve said before, I think there’s an important economic distinction between the consumer and business apps.
Consumer apps are driven by a set of economic factors that make it well worth the investment to build native apps for every platform. In this environment Objective C, Java, and .NET (along with C++) all have a bright future.
My interest doesn’t really lie in the consumer app space, as I think relatively few people are going to get rich building casual games, fart apps, metro transit mapping apps, and so forth. From a commercial perspective there is some money to be made building apps for corporations, such as banking apps, brochure-ware apps, travel apps, etc. But even that is a niche market compared to the business app space.
Business apps (apps for use by a business’s employees) are driven by an important economic factor called a natural monopoly. Businesses want software that is built and maintained as cheaply as possible. Rewriting the same app several times to get a “native experience” on numerous operating systems has never been viable, and I can’t see where IT budgets will be expanding to enable such waste in the near future. In other words, businesses are almost certain to continue to build business apps in a single language for a single client platform. For a couple decades this has been Windows, with only a small number of language/tool combinations considered viable (VB, PowerBuilder, .NET).
The natural monopoly concept creates some tension here.
A business might insist on supporting just one platform, probably Windows. A couple years ago I thought Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy was to make it realistic for businesses to choose Windows and .NET as this single platform. Sadly they’ve created a side loading cost model that basically blocks WinRT business app deployment, making Windows far less interesting in terms of being the single platform. The only thing Windows has going for it is Microsoft’s legacy monopoly, which will carry them for years, but (barring business-friendly changes to WinRT licensing) is doomed to erode.
Perhaps a business would settle on iOS or Android as the “one client platform”, but that poses serious challenges given that virtually all businesses have massive legacies of Windows apps. The only realistic way to switch clients to iOS or Android is to run all those Windows apps on Citrix servers (or equivalent), and to ensure that the client devices have keyboards and mice so users can actually interact with the legacy Windows apps for the next several years/decades. Android probably has a leg up here because most Android devices have USB ports for keyboards/mice, but really neither iOS nor Android have the peripheral or multi-monitor support necessary to truly replace legacy Windows (Win32/.NET).
What I’m getting at here is that businesses have an extremely ugly choice on the client:
- Rewrite and maintain every app 3+ times to be native on Windows, iOS, and Android
- Select one platform (almost certainly Windows) on which to write all client apps, and require users to use that platform
I think I’ve listed those in order from most to least expensive, though numbers 1 and 2 could be reversed in some cases. I think in all cases it is far cheaper for businesses to do what Delta recently did and just issue Windows devices to their employees, thus allowing them to write, maintain, and support apps on a single, predictable platform.
The thing is that businesses are run by humans, and humans are often highly irrational. People are foolishly enamored of BYOD (bring your own device), which might feel good, but is ultimately expensive and highly problematic. And executives are often the drivers for alternate platforms because they like their cool new gadgets; oblivious to the reality that supporting their latest tech fad (iPad, Android, whatever) might cost the business many thousands (often easily 100’s of thousands) of dollars each year in software development, maintenance, and support costs.
Servers are a bit simpler than client devices.
The primary technologies used today on servers are .NET and Java. Though as I pointed out at the start of this post, you shouldn’t discount the amount of COBOL, RPG, FORTRAN, and other legacy languages/tools/platforms that make our world function.
In other words the current 60/40 split (or 50/50, depending on whose numbers you believe) between .NET and Java on the server isn’t likely to change any time soon.
I’m not totally OK with it, because I rather enjoy modern C#/VB and .NET. And yes, I could easily ride out the rest of my career on .NET, there’s no doubt in my mind. But I have never in my career been a legacy platform developer, and I can’t imagine working in a stagnant and increasingly irrelevant technology, so I doubt I’ll make that choice – stable though it might be.
Fwiw, I do still think Microsoft has a chance to make Windows 8, WinRT, and .NET a viable business app development target into the future. But their time is running out, and as I said earlier they seem oblivious to the danger (or are perhaps embracing the loss of Windows as the primary app dev target on the client). I would like to see Microsoft wake up and get a clue, resulting in WinRT and .NET being a viable future for business app dev.