Tools for the New Terrain

Prepare for a year in which application development tools demand your most careful attention.

Prepare for a year in which application development tools demand your most careful attention. The opportunities and challenges of building and buying Web services are nearing the tip-over point: Anything else that you do this year will merely maintain your museum of how you used to be competitive.

Development tools dont evolve in a steady, Darwinian process of natural selection. What we actually see is a punctuated equilibrium, to borrow the phrase of Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould: Nothing important seems to happen for quite some period of time, until theres a sudden burst of activity in which old species become extinct and new ones emerge.

Francis Heylighen, at the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, explained this in terms of a "fitness landscape": an imaginary terrain in which valleys of stability are separated by ridges of transition. There used to be a forbidding ridge separating PC applications—with their assumption of fast local memory and storage, immediate and rich interaction with the user, and a high degree of hardware specificity—from network (especially wireless network) applications, which depend on remote resources with diverse and even variable behaviors.

Changing circumstances lower the ridge: Wireless bandwidth can suddenly grow; XML can make data more self-descriptive; portable processing power can suddenly handle compression and encryption. "Once over the ridge," Heylighen observed, "the descent into the new valley will go very fast." A small disturbance gives rise to forces that make that disturbance larger: User expectations jump to a new level, and nothing less can compete.

When software innovation comes in the form of Web services, instead of as bits in boxes, well see lower barriers to entry, even lower than in the Apple II era of floppy disks in sandwich bags. We wont need to settle for what it makes sense to include in a mainstream desktop suite; well be able to build, rent or buy what we want. And developers will have to select, acquire and master the tools to make it happen. Its going to be a busy year.

Tell me what the new tools must do at