Commentary: VCs have gone wild for back-end developer-oriented technologies, but front-end technologies like Next.js are heating up.
It's almost a cliché to point out how so much of software today is built on or with open source. But Ian Massingham recently reminded me that for all the attention we lavish on back-end technologies--Linux, Docker containers, Kubernetes, etc.--front-end open source technologies actually claim more developer attention.
Much of the front-end magic open source software that developers love today was born at early web giants like Google and Facebook. Frameworks for the front make it possible for Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Airbnb, and others to iterate quickly, scale, deliver consistent fast responsiveness and, in general, mostly delight their users. Indeed, their entire businesses depend on great user experiences.
While venture investors historically have plowed their funds into back-end startups creating open source software, the same is not nearly as true with the front-end. Accel, Benchmark, Greylock, and other top-tier VCs made fortunes on backing enterprise open source software startups like Heroku, MuleSoft, Red Hat, and many more.
Is it time for the front-end?
Framing up the frameworks
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Looking at data from GitHub, it's clear that two front-end frameworks are emerging as the most popular tools for developers (more than 120,000 GitHub stars each): React and Vue. Once-popular Angular appears to be in secular decline. The same signal emerges from the noise of Google search popularity (Figure A).
React was born within Facebook in 2011, the work of Jordan Walke, and was released as open source two years later. React has been embraced by a who's who of internet giants and global enterprises. Vue...not so much (although Alibaba is certainly a giant), but it's beloved by developers for its performance and beginner friendliness. It was released as open source in 2014 by Evan You, a former Googler who wanted to improve on Angular.
Such frameworks help to bring the power of Google's and Facebook's formerly internal tools to front-end developers on the open web.
Improving on React
Within the React world, there is an open source framework quickly gaining an impressive developer following called Next.js, likely the most popular component within React. Authored by wunderkind developer Guillermo Rauch--who also gave us Mongoose, MooTools, Socket.io--the premise of Next.js is simplicity. Rauch thought creating React apps and websites was too tedious, so he built a framework that removes almost all the complexity of an app or website.
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How so? Well, Next.js removes the need to set up CI, SSL, DNS, socket set up, server provisioning, etc.--with one command a developer can start a React app and with another command build it. All of the React components needed for the app or website are in files called by an API. Not only does this simplify development, but performance is smoking fast, even at web scale.
It's reimagining infrastructure for the front-end developer. Given its adoption by Hilton Hotels, Zillow, Adidas, Twitch, Nike, Uber, and more, it's finding an enthusiastic audience.
Google frameworks lead Nicole Sullivan praised Next.js at the October JAMstack_conf_19 in San Francisco. Though React started within Facebook (and AngularJS started within Google), developers are less concerned with origins and more focused on direction. Google Chrome has a mandate to make the web faster, she said, and React-centric Next.js is part of that mandate. Rauch was also featured with a walk-on presentation during the keynote address at Google's Chrome Dev 19 conference in San Francisco last month.
Of course back-end technologies will continue to be a big deal for developers and the VCs who keep trying to anticipate their next pull request. But Google's and others' interest in front-end technologies like Next.js is a signal that front-end technologies are as hot (or hotter).
Disclosure: I work for AWS, but my work is not involved directly or indirectly related to anything in this article.
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