Developers need to know where their good ideas will find a sizable and growing audience. Whenever there’s a major refresh of desktop operating systems and hardware in the offing, it’s only logical to wonder if that represents an opportunity to use new features of that environment to rise above the noise.

What I’m seeing suggests that the forthcoming tsunami of thick-client hype is going to wash up on a deserted beach, while thin-client access — netbooks and smart phones — to cloud-based applications will represent the target-rich environment for developers who want to win.

InformationWeek finds its readers voracious for information about forthcoming desktop clients, but underwhelmed by the prospects for compelling products. Key excerpts from their summary include (my emphasis added):

More than 1,400 of you took our poll, about three times more than usual… More than 75% of respondents say they haven’t migrated to Vista at all, and less than 3% say they’ve fully migrated on both new and old hardware. Almost 40% of survey respondents say they have no plans yet to deploy Windows 7, and the rest spread their adoption plans fairly evenly from six to 24 months out, or as systems are retired and replaced. That’s a pretty typical desktop deployment cycle, indicating that XP is still doing the job just fine for most organizations. In fact, the new Windows 7 feature that survey respondents find most interesting is its XP mode.

Meanwhile, eWEEK reports projections that “by 2014, monthly data traffic will exceed 2008’s annual mobile data total” and that computers with embedded 3G and 4G modems will represent more than half of that volume — with roughly 3/4 of the traffic representing Internet site and application access rather than merely audio/video streaming. This is going to add up to enormous numbers of users for cloud-based resources, with minimal end-user preference (or even awareness) concerning platform-specific features of the endpoint device.

Nor is this mere futurism: the Pew Internet & American Life Project estimated last month that “56% of adult Americans have accessed the internet by wireless means, such as using a laptop, mobile device, game console, or MP3 player. The most prevalent way people get online using a wireless network is with a laptop computer; 39% of adults have done this.” People are ready and eager for ubiquitous, anytime-from-anywhere access to the cloud at broadband speed.

Developers will therefore do well to think about the cloud as the focus of their investments in new skills. As reported by InfoWorld (my emphasis added),

“There will be more job emphasis on integration with SaaS,” says [Kim] Terry [president of Terrosa Technologies]. “If you’re paying someone now to code an application, tomorrow you’ll be paying someone to configure and customize an SaaS application for the business.”

[Mark] McDonald [Gartner’s group vice president of executive programs] sees this skill-set change occurring even today: “You’re already starting to see people that are Force-certified [for’s development platform]. You’ll also see a need for custom development in certain highly focused areas that have a lot of value. For example, we’re seeing a lot of people doing things with customer information that help drive customer retention and pricing power for the company and that require a lot of custom development and specialization.”

IT pros with certain “industrial-strength” skills will also be in demand by cloud providers, says Forrester’s [analyst Ted] Schadler. “They’ll need really high-quality people who understand automation and standardized processes,” he says…

So what should today’s IT employee do to protect his or her career? “Look for the skills the company is going to need five years from now, not now, and start building them,” advises Forrester’s Schadler. “These include vendor contract management, integration with the cloud, analytics, rich lightweight Internet workforce applications, mobile applications — these are all skills for the next decade,” he says.

The runway stretches ahead of us. Throttle up.

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