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Software's unfinished business for 2007

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Grumpy old men and the developer challenge

The developer old guard wrestled to deal with the challenges of the "new" in software development. Events were summed up when James Gosling, venerated each year at JavaOne as the father of Java who inadvertently helped birth an entire industry last decade, was flamed for blogging that scripting languages – the lingua franca of a new generation of Web 2.0 developers - are not good enough for building enterprise applications.

To keep Java in with this crowd, Sun Microsystems went on to add support for PHP, Perl, Ruby and other scripting languages to Java Standard Edition (SE). To help ensure Java can ship with Linux, Sun also released Java under the GPL. That proved too much for some, and Gosling's peer and Sun fellow Graham Hamilton apparently quit Sun fearing fragmentation of Java in the hands of the community.

Borland Software also grappled with the challenge posed by open source to its own business. After 20 years, Borland took the monumental decision to sell its venerated JBuilder, Delphi, and Windows developer tools. After an eight month search, though, Borland came up short and opted – instead - to run the tools as a subsidiary called CodeGear.

Next year doesn't promise any relief from the open source pressure. CodeGear will go to market with an unproven, Eclipse-based version of its JBuilder IDE. CodeGear will campaign on value-added management features it's built on top of the basic Eclipse Framework.

Eclipse, meanwhile, will do more to make it easier for developers to find and work with Eclipse plug-ins in their chosen IDE. Whether CodeGear can succeed with its pitch will be a test case on whether commercial tools companies can really entice paying customers with the promise of "value" on top of the Eclipse platform.

Elsewhere, 2007 will see AJAX and scripting continue to grow, but Java should retain its place in the enterprise. The trick for Java vendors will be in converting AJAX and scripting developers into long-term users of Java for "grown up" applications.

Immoveable object meets irresistible force

Real news comes from the most unlikely sources. And so it was. Microsoft blindsided everyone during what should have been a routine quarterly conference call in April by casually saying it planned to spend $2bn more on R&D than analysts expected this year. Microsoft topped that up in October with an additional $1.3bn. The cash is going on an internet search, advertising and services challenger to Google. The long anticipated show down between the immovable object on the desktop and the irresistible force from the internet was finally on.

As Microsoft's own online ads revenue went south, though, and the Redmond marketing department applied its "Live" online moniker to a growing bevy of "me too" Web 2.0 services during 2006, analysts questioned the wisdom of chasing Google. That put Ballmer on the back foot: "There are very few areas where, except for Microsoft Bob, we haven't succeeded or where we're [still] telling you we are going to succeed," Ballmer said. "We think the businesses we pick are very good businesses and we should stick with them."

The real problem for Microsoft was the difficulty of predicting what Google's strategy really is, beyond the blindingly obvious – revenue from ads. Case in point: the purchase of online word processing firm Writely was seized on as the advent of an online word processing alternative to Word. It transpired, though, Google was building a subtler alternative: rich functionality in Gmail and Google Docs & Spreadsheets, which combine word processing and spreadsheets.

The stage is set next year for a complex and protracted battle between these juggernauts. Microsoft will continue to fine tune and tweak its ads search engine and will likely attract online traffic. If Microsoft's previous experience in the internet field with Hotmail and MSN is anything to go by, its latest strategy will plateau instead of achieving exponential growth.

Microsoft's biggest and best hope will be if Google takes a wrong turn or hits a bad patch, as Sony did in the games market against Xbox. Meanwhile, you can expect Google to woo small businesses and individuals using Google Docs & Spreadsheets and Google Apps for Your Domain, with the ultimate possibility of a merger between the two. ®

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