You’ve seen the stats: Google’s Android is the best-selling smartphone platform, followed closely by Apple’s iOS. Microsoft’s Windows Phone is a distant follower, and RIM’s BlackBerry is fading away.

Don’t count Microsoft out so fast. The company enjoys several advantages that none of its competitors can challenge. Microsoft knows how to woo developers, including large ISVs and small startups. Microsoft understands enterprise IT. Windows runs on most desktops and notebooks.

Those are all true, but as our special report on the Microsoft tools ecosystem points out (see p. 30), that’s only part of the story. No company—none—has the breadth of tool partners that Microsoft offers through Visual Studio and Team Foundation Server.

Make no mistake: All three of what we consider the most promising smartphone platforms—Android, iOS and Windows Phone—have powerful IDEs that developers like. Android developers build software in Java using Eclipse; iOS developers program in Objective-C with Xcode; Windows developers of all stripes use Visual Studio and languages like C# and Visual Basic.

All three are powerful IDEs, and Eclipse in particular offers a fantastic range of add-ins, add-ons, plug-ins and integrations. But Visual Studio has them all beat.

Not only that, but the for-profit nature of Microsoft’s Visual Studio team lets the company embrace third-party providers in a way that the not-for-profit Eclipse Foundation can’t hope to match. (It doesn’t hurt that Microsoft’s Visual Studio and Windows teams report to the same shareholders, while the Eclipse Foundation, Oracle’s Java Community Process and Google’s Android Developers are three independent organizations.)

We predict that the mobile wars will gel into a three-horse race, at least when it comes to smartphones. (We don’t foresee any significant challenge to the iPad on the tablet front for some time; Microsoft isn’t going there, and Android lacks a clear message.)

• Android will sell more units, in large part due to the broad base of carriers and handset makers, which will drive prices low. And, of course, there’s a new Android phone appearing every week.

• Apple will offer the high-status hardware and arguably the greatest reliability, but the walled garden and lack of hardware diversity will restrain its growth.

• Boosted by developer enthusiasm and its strong tools ecosystem, Microsoft will eventually get its bearings. It may take a couple of years, but Microsoft will prove a formidable challenger.

What about Metro? It’s unclear whether having the same user experience (or what superficially appears to be the same user experience) on the phone and desktop is what consumers want. Microsoft tried it one way, by putting the desktop Windows Start button onto Windows Mobile. That didn’t work. Now it’s pushing the phone user interface back onto the desktop with the Metro graphical shell.

Will customers like it? No way of telling, especially since customers won’t get Windows 8 for a long time. Visual Studio tool providers, of course, are hedging their bets and are starting to support the new UI metaphor. But for now, the growth opportunity in the Microsoft ecosystem is Windows Phone.

Java is back
How did Java ever fall so far behind? Was it entirely Sun’s fault? Can the Java Community Process be blamed? Does it even matter anymore? The truth is, rhetorical questions like that don’t matter now that Java is back and full of life once again.

From the drastic changes planned for Java ME, to the sweeping revisions of the JCP, it certainly looks like 2012 will be a year full of major changes to Java. Why, Oracle’s road map even calls for the addition of functional language capabilities, such as closures, sometime next fall. That’s functionality that’s also new to C++11, meaning the two languages will essentially be on par with one another for the first time in years.

Who knew that Oracle would be just about the best prescription for what ailed Java? With its deep pockets and ruthless dedication to making money, the company has clearly figured out exactly what was wrong with Java and has decided to fix it. That’s not to say every new aspect of Java is guaranteed success, or that every change Oracle is promising will be on time and implemented perfectly—or even close to perfectly. But after years of neglect and ruin (thanks to Sun’s inability to make any real money on the platform), Java is becoming a first-class language again.

We just hope that Oracle and the JCP don’t stall out of this new steep climb for the skies. If they can keep this up, Java should remain an exciting and vibrant language for many decades to come. That’s good news for everyone involved.