The Future of Frontend is Already Here

Share via Twitter Share via Facebook Share via Linkedin Share via Reddit

Engineers focused on the top of the stack are the Newest New Kingmakers because the software industry as a whole is trending toward packaged, managed, and abstracted solutions intended to minimize the pain of backend and infra—precisely the type of development that frontend engineers have little interest in doing themselves. Central to my claim is acknowledging that frontend devs are not alone in expressing this preference to offload, abstract, and move into the cloud their operations labor. In fact, more and more of the developers I speak to—frontend, backend, and ops—describe their workflows in ways suggesting that developers of all stripes are ceding their low level concerns to managed providers.

Frontend development is no longer ancillary to the SDLC, and in this post, part of a series concerning the frontend Kingmaker, I discuss what the future holds for the frontend and a top-of-stack-first software industry more broadly.

Discussion of the future of frontend is popular right now. While Josh W Comeau argues against hyperbolic claims that AI spells “The End of Front-End Development,” Shahan Chowdhury’sThe future of frontend development” argues that AI and No-Code/Low-Code will augment frontend developers without replacing them. You can also find more general posts on the state of JavaScript and web development by Emma White, Ritesh Kumar, and Luigi Toporov. However, all of the ink spilled on this subject misses what I consider to be the equally significant concern of the frontend Kingmaker. Namely, that as abstracted solutions intended to lessen the pain of backend and operations improve, the role of frontend developers in making purchasing decisions will continue to grow.


From BaaS to PartyKit

Let’s talk about some of the vendors catering to frontend engineers, and the role of cloud-based abstractions for establishing their position in the marketplace.

When Sunil Pai, CEO of PartyKit, decided to appear on an episode of JS Party, Changelog’s frontend podcast, he did so for very good reason. Not only is Pai a veritable institution in the React, JavaScript, and CSS domains, PartyKit is targeted to frontend engineers. Pai’s newest project has received a ton of buzz for simplifying real-time sync, which has long been a thorn in the side of developers working on multiplayer collaborative apps that allow more than one user to work simultaneously (think Figma, Google Docs, and Replit).

PartyKit represents a compelling case for the ascendance of frontend. Not only does it demonstrate the innovation happening in the JavaScript space, PartyKit also suggests the robustness of the frontend buyer market. Vendors are noticing the success of platforms that deliberately target frontend developers, and are eager to spin up their own solutions to meet the demand. According to JS Party co-host Kevin Ball:

I like [PartyKit’s] one-liner[: “it’s like Vercel or Netlify, but if you’re building real time”]. This model of … Vercel and Netlify did something great, which is “Okay, if you’re a frontend developer, you know your stuff… Deploy on us. We’ll handle everything else, and we’ll make it easy to deal with these other different things.” And you’re saying, “Okay, I want to be that for multiplayer.”

Ball argues that platforms created to remove the pain of managing backend operations set a precedent in the market. These vendors include not only Vercel and Netlify, but also, as I have argued, BaaS companies like Supabase, Google Firebase, MongoDB Atlas, AWS Amplify, and Appwrite. It also includes companies like Zephyr Cloud, a cloud service founded by the inventors and maintainers of the micro-frontend containerization technology Module Federation, intended to lessen the difficulty of developing and managing micro-frontends. The number of companies that identify frontend developers as a lucrative and eager customer base is growing steadily among incumbents and new entrant startups alike. All recognize that the cognitive load of self-managing operations and infrastructure, not to mention databases, security, authentication, and observability, poses tremendous challenges that are increasingly unnecessary to handle in-house.


Moar Abstractions

Frontend developers are Kingmakers owing to a long succession of software development trends tied to the rise of cloud-hosted abstractions. Abstracted solutions simplify and expand access to primitives, which are otherwise difficult to manage. In PartyKit’s case, these include Cloudflare’s Durable Objects, which are essentially Cloudflare workers that feature in-memory state. The story of primitives ceding place to managed services is one we often tell at RedMonk (I recommend my colleague Stephen O’Grady’s recent “AI, PaaS and Punctuated Equilibrium”), but it is worth rehashing this trend to consider how it affects the move up-stack.

To begin, the historical progression toward abstraction in the software development profession applies to services as well as languages. Fewer and fewer programmers spend their days writing code for bare metal and low-level languages. Although less human-readable languages like C, Assembly, and Fortran aren’t going anywhere soon, and Rust is growing its list of admirers, most work-a-day developers write high-level code for the top of the stack.

GitHub’s 2023 State of the Octoverse certainly upholds this trend. According to their research, of the “20.2 million developers” (meaning individuals with a GitHub account), there has been “a 21% increase in developer growth over the past year” with JavaScript continuing to be the most popular language. RedMonk’s own language rankings echo this finding, with JavaScript holding top seat as the most popular language every year since 2015. In fact, of the top 7 languages, 6 reside squarely at the top of the stack and three are client-side (JS, CSS, and Typescript). My takeaway from these surveys is that as the software field continues growing by leaps and bounds, the lion’s share of new entrants to the field will work on the frontend.

In addition to the languages developers write, modern software development relies heavily on services that abstract away fiddly bits and complexity. While some grumpier sysadmins will doubtless wring their hands at this proclamation, the fact of the matter is that offloading operations is becoming increasingly desirable because ops is hard, infra is expensive, and the stakes for security and compliance are high.


The API Economy & Cloud Native

The frontend Kingmaker is a consequence of the proliferation of abstractions, and abstractions are here to stay. Managed services can improve security by leaving complex and time consuming tasks like user authentication and highly regulated services like POS systems to domain experts. They allow companies to focus wholly upon business logic unique to their use case. When it comes to the frontend tooling and provisioning ecosystem, this move toward abstractions ties into the failure of full-stack. The rise of the full-stack engineer, while good for employers, is now roundly denounced by many in this space because expecting developers to master everything saddles them with undue cognitive load. As Laurie Voss argues,

we survive the ever growing stack … by abstracting details away.

Let’s dig into the subject of abstractions by revisiting the so-called API Economy. While APIs have been essential to the story of cloud computing since its inception, with Salesforce and eBay allowing access to their web APIs as far back as 2000, the market share of companies that have adopted an Ask Your Developer philosophy by offering APIs is, to quote Paul Lehair, “eating the world.” APIs are essential to modern software development, and frontend engineers are well positioned to profit from this evolution. According to J Chris Anderson, a co-founder of Couchbase who is currently working on Fireproof, a database startup targeted at front-end developers:

APIs are getting integrated in the frontend, which is why they are getting the buying power and making them into Kingmakers.

Most recently, the ascent of API driven development appears in the integration of LLMs. Instead of training up their own models or hosting them locally, developers can easily build chatbots using options like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Google’s Gemini, or Anthropic’s Claude using the API integrations these vendors aim to make as seamless and intuitive for developers as possible. Indeed, OpenAI’s custom GPTs provide bespoke experiences while eliminating the pain of training and self-hosting these models. They also take developer experience seriously, with extensive documentation, quick start guides, and SDKs.

In addition to frontend engineer’s comfort with APIs, the abstractions vendors provide for these users are frequently cloud native. Brian LeRoux, cofounder of Begin, is optimistic about the frontend Kingmaker’s future because of this domain’s ease with cloud. From a vendor’s perspective:

Frontend engineers are a wonderful market to onboard to the new cloud

Because frontend developers must take backend processes into account when building dynamic and interactive websites, they recognize the importance of serverless and cloud hosting. Indeed, the challenges attendant to the Server/Client Two-Step are unsettled and occupy a tremendous amount of brain power among the savviest developers in this field.


Abstraction Problems

There are, of course, tradeoffs to adopting these abstraction-heavy solutions. Abstracted products and services, often delivered as APIs and libraries, all port other people’s code into a project. This is both its beauty and danger. Abstracted solutions force projects into a specific shape, and often struggle to scale as a consequence. As I prepare to attend DevNexus in the coming weeks I anticipate hearing the now very old chestnut trotted out that Twitter had to rewrite their backend from Ruby on Rails to Scala (which builds on Java) because lower-level languages like Java scale better. When it comes to handling heavy processes and caching layers, languages like Java will continue to be invaluable. However, apps as large as Twitter are the exception rather than the rule, meaning that growing pains are not hindering the mass of developers from using JavaScript and TypeScript. As a postscript, it is worth noting that Java 22 is adopting radically simplified syntax that resembles the higher level languages outcompeting it in terms of commits.

In addition to scaling issues, managed services and products that abstract away complexity are frequently costly. Vercel simplifies deployments by wrapping AWS primitives in a simple build experience requiring zero configuration, but users pay for this convenience. This has lead some developers to complain Vercel Is Ridiculously Expensive. Despite increased overhead, many companies are finding the tradeoff of not having to hire engineers to manage infrastructure to be well worth it. Joe Emison, cofounder and CTO at Branch Insurance, has made the business case for leveraging cloud services in conjunction with hiring and training up junior developers that specialize in frontend skills:

as we have better and more powerful cloud services to build on (e.g., AWS, GCP, Azure, Netlify, Twilio, Stripe), more developer focus turns to interfaces.

In other words, by offloading operations to managed providers Branch’s engineering department is able to focus wholly on UI and frontend interfaces. Although Branch is an extreme case, the future of software development is moving in the direction Emison charts.

Now, let me address the final and least charitable interpretation of so many developers’ reliance upon abstractions and managed services: the supposed existential threat to the profession. I have already discussed the stereotypes against the frontend, which dismisses this category of engineers for being feminine and overrun by under-qualified junior developers. For those taking these stereotypes seriously, a frontend-dominated future spells the end of software engineering. According to this way of thinking, frontend engineers are little better than citizen developers who rely exclusively on low-code and no-code solutions. If we take seriously James Somers’s experience witnessing AI and low/no-code replace the labor of software engineers, then we are indeed at the cusp of “the waning days of the craft.”

But I don’t subscribe to this gloomy interpretation of our frontend-driven future. I argue instead that the frontend is where a tremendous amount of innovation is happening. Any vendor betting on the notion that frontend engineers aren’t savvy or accomplished, and therefore sitting duck targets for overpriced, black box solutions, will ultimately fail.


The Frontend is Dead, Long Live the Frontend

Which brings me to my last point about the newest new Kingmaker. Like any shift the transition to elevate the frontend has been uneven, but in the particular case of software development it has also been accompanied by a redistribution of roles and a blurring of the lines that traditionally separated front from back end, client from server, and static from interactive. Many in the space like Melissa Mcewan have long criticized the terms frontend and backend, noting that: “This distinction hasn’t been relevant in probably over a decade, but it persists.” Reddit user n9iels echoes this point:

In my experience the front-end domain is shifting from only HTML/CSS/JS to also include backend-for-fronted. Especially with websites that are entirely build with React or Angular (SPA) the line between backend and frontend gets gray.

Because the terms frontend, backend, and full-stack don’t offer an accurate reflection of the SDLC today they will eventually be replaced by new developer types. While I don’t anticipate the term frontend’s jettisoning anytime soon, in terms of real world practice this domain must continue to shift. In place of the frontend developer will appear a new breed of engineers that work with APIs and cloud services to achieve performant, interactive UIs. These developers will operate across the stack, not by presuming to know everything, as was expected of a full-stack engineer, but rather by leveraging the tools at their disposal and innovating where these don’t pass muster.

The frontend’s sun has risen, but this discipline is a revolving star. Although the software industry appears particularly unstable these days owing to the uncertainty bred from the AI technology boom and the evaporation of ZIRP funding conditions, vendors recognize that developers working at the top of the stack are well positioned for success. The industry and market is becoming more complex and sophisticated, but developers working in the frontend space have met these challenges head-on. What seems more likely to me than a proliferation of lobotomized developers, mindlessly enthralled to their hyperscaler overlords, is that as the labor of development continues to move up-stack improvements in client-side and UI experiences (think caching, WebAssembly, hydration, containerized micro-frontends) will grow in parallel. Many of the brightest lights and most pioneering developers in the software industry today are working in the frontend because this domain leverages the cutting edge technologies they prefer.

Disclaimer: Cloudflare, Oracle (Java), MongoDB, Microsoft (GitHub), Google, and AWS are RedMonk clients.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *