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6 code and framework trends you should follow

Peter Wayner Freelance writer

For code creators, 2021 has already been a big year. There haven’t been major tectonic shifts as in, say, 2014, when Apple introduced Swift as a new, high-profile language that was guaranteed to be used. But there’s still plenty of evolution amid the relentless push for faster responses, bigger datasets, and simpler opportunities for users.

At every level of the stack and in every corner of the computer, the goal has been to make coding cleaner, simpler, and more intuitive. That means polishing the rough edges to remove the opportunities for grief. Punctuation and syntax are typically getting simpler, or at least more concise.

It’s impossible to capture all of the activity in one list, or to even begin to explore all of the various corners of the world of software creation, from the scientific labs to the deep corners of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Regardless, some noteworthy trends are dominating the most visible world of user-facing code. Here are six of them

1. The big frameworks keep evolving and growing

React just shipped version 17 at the end of 2020. Angular shipped versions 10, 11, and 12 in the last year. Vue doesn’t bump the numbers as quickly, but it finished shipping 3.0 last year and is sharing betas of 3.1.

The numbers may change, but the code doesn’t. All three stacks are old enough that the new code is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Vue, for instance, says that it didn’t introduce many changes in version 3 and that it will be very familiar to users of version 2. React’s announcement for version 17 claimed that there were “no new features,” even though there were several revisions that could break old code.

Angular continues to add new options and mechanisms, but they seem minor and don’t change the approach that developers take. One recent bump added more formatting flexibility, including the chance to use Sass and Tailwind CSS in more places.

These frameworks are used widely by some of the biggest and most popular websites. Vue may be the youngest of the three, but in the last several years, it has outstripped the others in the raw counts of websites. It may not be backed by a major company, but its relative simplicity makes it easier to adopt for smaller projects.

2. Static options are more popular

Not every application is complex. More and more, developers are recognizing that some of their websites just aren’t that dynamic by nature. Static pages filled with text and photos that don’t change can survive and even thrive without all of the vast coding infrastructure that runs every time someone comes to the page.

Static site generators (SSGs) take the content and compute static HTML and CSS that can sit out at the edges of the web in content delivery networks (CDNs). There’s no need to maintain clusters filled with instances and databases, as the CDN does the work most of the time. When you want to make a change, you just fire up the SSG and pipe the response right into the static directory.

Clever developers are merging just a bit of dynamic content into the static pages. A bit of JavaScript can poll a dynamic service and insert details about a user’s account into a corner of the page. This hybrid approach can still save plenty of computation on laying out the unchanging parts of the site.

Good static search generators are appearing for all flavors of coding and are often designed to pipe the results from the most popular frameworks into static files. Node.js users enjoy GatsbyJS, Cuttlebelle, VuePress, and Hexo. Python users have Pelican, Go users have Hugo, and Ruby users have Jekyll. There’s one for pretty much any legacy web application that needs to be transformed into a pile of static files.

3. Tiny clones are blooming

The big frameworks may have all of the features, but that complexity can weigh down developers and demand more server power. Developers are always looking for tiny versions that imitate the style and capture the philosophy but keep only enough features that the developers want.

Dozens of great examples of good, new, and generally smaller frameworks are appearing. Developers are creating their own stripped-down versions with tiny subsets of just the features their application needs.

Svelte, for example, is a smaller framework with the protean flexibility of React but much smaller downloads that are generated once by a compiler. Most of the work is done during build—not upon each visit.

Another example, SynergyJS, promises everything you need to build your web app in HTML, CSS, and a bit of JavaScript. The overhead of its library is only 4KB.

Some are even talking about a “frameworkless movement,” at least according to this this manifesto, which insists, “We don’t hate frameworks,” only their misuse.

4. SEO’s importance continues to rise

Some developers are recognizing that search engines wag the dog at many websites and the best solution is to acknowledge their power and elevate the role of SEO in the process.

Elder.js is one framework that wants to put SEO first. It starts with the Svelte SSG and adds a mixture of common tricks that simplify the work for the search engine through tricks such as simplifying the routing and precomputing as much of the website as possible.

5. Web Assembly and Canvas are becoming more common

Developers are looking underneath the high-level abstractions of HTML and starting to explore the primitives below such as the Canvas API or the opportunity to ship Web Assembly code. Google, for instance, is rewriting its document editor to draw the words directly on a Canvas object instead of juggling divs and spans filled with words.

The low-level web assembly is also gaining fans, especially from developers who want to write code in languages other than JavaScript, such as Rust and Go. Microsoft, for example, is connecting its .NET world to Web Assembly with a tool called Blazor.

6. CSS frameworks are increasing in their sophistication

At one time, CSS files were just a simple list of fonts and sizes with maybe some colors and formatting rules mixed in. Now writing CSS means creating hierarchies full of sophisticated, moving abstractions. Choosing the right CSS framework for your project is more important than ever because each of these frameworks has a distinctive look and feel that comes through no matter which colors and fonts you choose.

Dozens of options are proliferating, as good designers release new frameworks that embody their styles. They range from classic foundations such as Bootstrap to more modern approaches such as Materialize and Siimple. And if you’re really feeling nostalgic, there are the options like 7.css, XP.css, and 98.css.

It's all converging

These six trends are just some of the important ideas that are animating the work of the developers creating web applications. Of course, there are plenty of developers in other spaces working in their own directions. Data scientists, for instance, may enjoy their life working with Python or R. AI developers are building out their models with their own custom hardware.

Still, all of these actions are converging. Jupyter Notebooks, one of the most common formats for bringing data science work to the web, can now integrate with React. Adding an AI model built with TensorFlow to your Angular app? Someone is already leading the way.

While some coders continue to work in the lowest levels of the stack, the top world built around the browser continues to draw them back in as everything seems to converge on browser-based interfaces.

Note: This story is an update of our 2017 report on the same subject. A quick highlight to show how far we have come (or not):

For developers, 2016 was a big year, as several programming ecosystems hit major milestones. AngularJS 2 finally arrived, and Node.js moved toward VM neutrality. Developers complained about JavaScript fatigue, while others felt fatigued by the complaints about fatigue. 

Java 9 was delayed ... again, but Go 1.7 did get released, Go 1.8 is coming soon, and Elm, Kotlin, and other new languages have emerged into the limelight. Meanwhile, progressive web apps (PWAs) became the next big thing in mobile.

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