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Is There a 'Masterpiece' Among Modern Applications?

Forrester Research analysts have been talking about "modern applications," a term they more or less coined, for a couple of years now. One of the clearest definitions of a modern app comes from application development and delivery specialist Jeffrey S. Hammond, who listed the qualities of a modern app in a 2013 blog post.

According to Hammond, a modern application is designed to work across a range of devices, from smartphones to desktops (not to mention your car and toaster). They react to multiple modes of input, including voice, touch, and the good old mouse. They're highly elastic and "take advantage of cloud economics." They use open source software. They're API-oriented, built on open web techniques, and use REST, XML, and JSON "to make it easy for all types of devices and clients to easily consume data." They're also responsive, organic, and contextual. (It's well worth reading the whole post.)

Increasingly, the source for this modern species of app is non-traditional developers, he said during a recent panel discussion among in-the-trenches coders.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm living in two completely different markets these days," Hammond said. "There's the market of the traditional IT developer, where we have conversations about whether they're a .NET or Java shop, and whether they're going to release two times this year or three, and how many millions of lines of code they're writing for the middleware they're building on top of these app servers.

"And then there are the outside-the-firewall developers who are releasing every couple of weeks, using technologies like JavaScript, Go, and Scala; who are putting all their stuff up on [Microsoft] Azure or the Amazon public cloud or the Google's public cloud infrastructure; who are even sometimes embedded inside the businesses, as opposed to a centralized IT organization. If you see that happen often enough, it begins to look like a real sea change in the way developers relate to the business, the way they drive the business, and their cultural practices."

Hammond moderated the panel, which was held last month at Telerik's Silicon Valley headquarters in Palo Alto. It featured representatives from Telerik partner organizations who are facing the challenge of bridging the two worlds Hammond described. In keeping with the theme of the event ("Coding Tomorrow's Masterpieces"), Hammond asked the panelists for examples of modern apps they considered to be masterpieces.

Thomas Stein, computer systems manager in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, who works in the school's NASA laboratory, pointed to Uber as a modern masterpiece, calling it "an amazing piece of work."

"I've hated the taxi experience my entire life," he said. "Uber puts me in direct contact with the driver, separating out the awkwardness of payment and tipping and all of that, and just really focusing on making me comfortable, giving me what I want, and getting me where I need to be -- with the mobile device is the touchpoint. It's not just the business model; the application is brilliant. I know it's not simple underneath, of course, but it feels simple from the top, and that's essential in a masterpiece."

For Chuck Ganapathi, founder and CEO of Tactile, which makes a mobile CRM app called Tact, it was DropBox. (It was actually his org's app, but they made him name another.)

"To me, a modern software masterpiece is something the users just fall in love with, because it does something simply and it just works," he said. "DropBox has that kind of feel. Suddenly, you have this file that you drop onto your computer and it magically appears on your computer at work."

Krupa Rocks, senior manager in the Clinical Data Systems group at St. Jude Medical, Inc. (not the hospital, but the medical device company), cited Google's driverless car, because it exemplifies the coming tight integrations of hardware and software.

"People don't know how to drive," she said. "Computers can do a better job. If Google can really provide a self-driving car, that would definitely be a masterpiece."

Todd Anglin, executive vice president of Telerik's Cross Platform Tools group, pointed out that modern software masterpieces are being created all the time that most people never see. "Consumer apps get all the attention," he said, "but there are masterpieces out there that never make it to the app store. Working with our customers, we get to see the apps that make business go and help people get their jobs done. When I look at those kinds of applications, it's really clear to me that a software masterpiece is something that evolves over time. That's one of the things that makes it modern."

Not surprisingly, Anglin also argued that modern application development is more dependent than ever on the evolving capabilities of modern tools. (His company is all about the dev tools.)

"We assume now a certain starting point," he said, "and tools are what get us there. They give teams the space to really think about how to define an application elegantly, rather than just 'how do I make this thing work?'"

Long Le, principle and App/Dev Architect at real estate services firm CB Richard Ellis (CBRE) , agreed with Anglin."Picking the right tools at every stage of your ALM process is super important to how fast you can get [the software] out there," he said, "especially if you have limited resources."

Ganapathi added that, for modern apps especially, analytics capabilities that help developers truly understand end users have become critical. "Today, it's all about being very iterative in your development and constantly re-tuning that on a day-to-day basis," he said. "You put something out there, and then observe the data to see how people are actually using it, and then you respond to that. And you don't rely on what they're telling you in user interviews, which is so often very different."

He also pointed to the growing importance of designers in modern app development. "As developers, we've always said to designers, we'll develop it, you just make it look pretty," he said. "That's so wrong! Everybody expects phenomenal design today. If you don't have great designers -- especially when you're thinking about modern mobile apps, let alone creating a masterpiece -- you're screwed."

Rocks added that in her organization, automated testing tools have become fundamental to fast solution delivery. "Developers aren't the best testers," she said. "So testing would become a bottleneck for us without those tools." She also agreed that designers have become essential to the process. "Users may not know what they want," she said, "but they know what they don't want."

Hammond noted that the emergence of such new tools as Grunt and the enormously popular Git could be evidence that classic IDEs, such as Visual Studio and Eclipse, aren't as useful for modern application development. He also suggested that the modern application space has birthed "a new humility" among developers.

The panelists also agreed that modern apps are increasingly being built by those non-traditional developers Hammond mentioned, people with a wide range of skills, from software engineers with computer science degrees to "not developers" in the sales department who rely heavily on tools and frameworks.

And they might even come up with a few masterpieces.

Posted by John K. Waters on November 12, 2014