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At ReactiveConf 2019, Richard Feldman, author of Elm in Action and creator of ‘elm-css’ made four predictions about how the future of web development will look like by the end of 2020 and 2025.

ReactiveConf 2019 was a three-day functional programming event that happened from October 30 to November 1 at Prague. The event hosted a number of great talks sharing the latest global trends in web and mobile development. This year among the topics covered were PWA, optimizations, security, visualizations, accessibility, and diversity.

Predicting the future of the web is about safer bets than about trends

Feldman started out by asking a question that developers often come across: “which technology stack to choose for their next project?” Previously, it was often advised to go for technologies that are “boring” or mature instead of the latest and shiniest ones. Going by this advice Feldman and his team chose the technology that had the biggest library ecosystem, most mature in the LAMP stack, and was adopted by many successful companies: Perl.

Since then, however, Perl gradually started to lose its popularity. The lesson that Feldman learned here was that “any technology that we choose, no matter how popular, how mainstream, how much traction it got today, you are still making a bet.” He says that predicting how the future for the current technologies will look like, and following that is safer than blindly accepting what everyone else is doing.

After setting up the premise, Feldman moved on to sharing his predictions:

Prediction 1: “TypeScript takes over the JS world”

Back in 2012, Anders Hejlsberg, who is the original designer of C#, Delphi, and Turbo Pascal, came up with another programming language called TypeScript. This language was introduced as a “superset” of JavaScript that will help developers build JavaScript apps that scale. Some of the positives that this language brought to JavaScript development was excellent tooling enabled by static typing, self-documentation of code, continuous feedback from autocomplete, and more.

Since its introduction, TypeScript has seen huge adoption. Almost all the big frontend frameworks such as React, Angular and Vue have extensive Typescript support. More and more JavaScript developers and framework authors are taking advantage of the excellent tooling and other benefits it provides. Its latest release, TypeScript 3.7 includes most-awaited features like assert signatures, recursive type aliases, top-level await, null coalescing, and optional chaining.

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Despite its popularity, not everyone is using TypeScript. Along with verbose code, it is “unsound” by design and gives a false sense of security in some instances, Feldman shared. So, there are people who like TypeScript and there are people who don’t. The most important factor to predict how its future will look like is by seeing how it is affecting the teams actually using it. Feldman said, “I hear a lot of teams saying we are trying Typescript, we have used Typescript, or we are using TypeScript. I hear almost no teams saying we tried Typescript and then went back to JavaScript.”

Feldman predicted that by the end of 2020, Typescript will be the most common choice for new JS commercial projects. And by the end of 2025, he predicted that there will be more people writing in TypeScript on a daily basis than people writing vanilla JavaScript.

Prediction 2: “WebAssembly is going to expand the web app pie”

First announced in 2015, WebAssembly is Assembly for the browser with a compact binary format that runs with near-native execution speed. It is also a compilation target for other high-level languages including C/ C++ and Rust. Its “closer to metal” property enables a number of computationally-intensive use cases on the web including games, media editing, speech synthesis, client-side computer vision, among others.

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WebAssembly is designed to work alongside JavaScript, which means you can call WebAssembly modules from JavaScript code. Though it can be used to improve the performance of JavaScript apps and libraries, Feldman doubts that this will be the only major way developers are going to use it in the future. This is because the existing performance of JavaScript is generally accepted and promising some percentage of improvement in speed is not going to be a game-changer for WebAssembly.

Instead, Feldman believes that WebAssmebly will enable browsers to compete with apps stores and installers. Getting users to install an app can be a significant obstacle to adoption. WebAssembly can help distribute native code without code signing, app stores, and development kits. Also, the web as a delivery platform provides deep linking and other sharing capabilities. He explained this through the example of Figma, a collaborative interface design tool built in C++, which users can access just going to a URL. However, distributing applications built in Rust, C++, or Go on web does not mean the end of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. WebAssembly will simply expand what he calls as the “web app pie.”

Feldman predicted that by the end of 2020, WebAssembly will not make much difference to the makeup of the web. By the end of 2025, however, we will start to see the niche of heavyweight web apps that are basically native apps distributed through the browser.

Prediction 3: “npm lasts, surviving further problems”

In recent years, developers have witnessed and survived quite a few npm disasters. In 2016, a developer unpublished more than 250 npm-managed modules that affected Node, Babel and thousands of other projects. Then in 2018, we saw the event-stream case, in which an ill-intentioned user took ownership of the widely-used package through social engineering and infected it with a malicious package.

Another problem with npm is that it can allow the execution of arbitrary code from thousands and thousands of packages through the “postinstall” hook in package.json. Feldman recommends disabling “postinstall” and “preinstall” scripts by using the following command:

npm config set ignore-scripts true

Also, we are seeing some alternatives to npm. Feldman mentioned about Entropic, a federated package registry with a new CLI introduced by the former CTO of npm, C J Silverio. Feldman believes that despite these alternatives, financial, security, or other problems developers will continue to use npm because of its strong network effects.

Drawing from these events, Feldman predicted that by the end of 2020, we can expect one more security incident. By the end of 2025, he predicts that we might see at least one malicious npm package infecting many developers’ machines.

Prediction 4: “JS alternatives stay niche, but age well”

When it comes to JavaScript alternatives, we have two options: JS dialects and non-JS dialects. Some of the JS dialects are TypeScript, Dart, Coffeescript, among others. Whereas, non-JS dialects include ClojureScript, ReasonML, and Elm, which provide a different experience than writing JavaScript.

Representing the Elm core team at the event, Feldman listed a few reasons why developers should try Elm. It renders faster and generates smaller builds than most top JS frameworks and almost never crashes. It has its own package ecosystem and is often praised for its very detailed error messages.

After sharing the benefits of Elm, Feldman concluded that JavaScript alternatives will stay niche, but age well. This essentially means that people who have chosen these alternatives and are happy with them will continue to use them regardless of the popularity of TypeScript.

By the end of 2020, compile-to-JS languages will continue to grow, but not as fast as TypeScript. By the end of 2025, non-JavaScript dialects will have aged well, although at that time TypeScript will still be more popular.

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