Column: Assessing Salesforce.com’s application development platforms

Salesforce.com may have focused on the social enterprise at Dreamforce, but its cloud-based programming tools are grabbing customer’s attention, too.

I went to Dreamforce expecting to be inundated by information and I was not wrong. The big message the company wanted me to take away is that everything is going social. No worries. Paul Greenberg and I have been having this conversation since 2005. Social is the new ketchup -- it goes on everything.

That’s fine and I think mostly right. But a less heralded component of Dreamforce deserves a closer look.

Developer Dreamforce started a day earlier than the Dreamforce user conference and was held in surrounding hotels, where Salesforce.com had workshops on the many ways to code on the Force.com platform. As I count them, developers can access three distinct Salesforce.com development platforms. First is Force.com with its Apex programming language or, if you prefer, Java. Second, there’s a development environment for websites attached to Salesforce applications. Third, there is Heroku, which supports Ruby on Rails and Java. The company plans to announce support for other languages as well.  

The uses of all these programming environments are highly varied. Professional business application developers will choose Force.com and build new Software as a Service apps or customize the CRM application set. People building websites are likely part of the marketing department. As a result, their interests might include building registration pages or refreshing a company’s look. Because that is a different skill set, so it requires a different tool set.

But what might cause confusion is the Heroku idea of building highly scalable applications that live on the Web and might inhabit other Web properties such as Facebook. The whole Heroku idea might have the most potential because it penetrates a market that is huge and still growing.

That’s not all though -- don’t forget data. Salesforce.com made announcements in some very interesting data areas. First, there’s Data.com, a facility designed to provide, for a fee, basic contact information from the Jigsaw acquisition, and it’s wedded to an important feed from Dun & Bradstreet’s corporate contact data. Then there’s DRO, or the Data Residency Option.   DRO is both a shift for Salesforce.com and a boon for many developers and their organizations.

With DRO, the company is making it possible for participating organizations to store their confidential information on-premises rather than in the cloud. My prediction is an early candidate for this kind of hybridization would be Chatter, the collaboration tool. With Chatter and DRO it is possible for a company to capture and store all conversational data rather than having it evaporate into the cloud. 

That’s not a bad idea really. One of the shortcomings of social media is its ephemeral quality -- here today, gone today. Capturing and storing your chats might be useful for retrospective analysis and for regulatory reasons if you live in a regulated world. So, although social and Salesforce.com should be inextricably linked in your noggin, there was a whole lot of programming information revealed, too.

The importance of this observation might be obscure but let me try to paint a picture. While the software industry is huge, the market for do-it-yourself application programming within corporations is even bigger. The reason is simple: Try as they might, application vendors don’t and probably can’t cover all the bases. 

Some applications are simply best delivered by the in-house staff and they fall into two categories. I call them orphans and specialists. Orphans are a step up from spreadsheets; they provide a vital service but a conventional vendor cannot deliver them and make a profit. 

On the other hand, specialist applications deal with some arcane aspect of business, involving regulation or governance, or they’re simply part of a company’s secret sauce. Companies elect to code these systems for a variety of reasons, from security to secrecy.

In either case, there will always be a market for programming tools, and Salesforce.com is making a big push into tools as noted above. The push is also well-timed. Oracle is trying to introduce a new application environment called Fusion, which will largely be a tool set for Oracle developers and users. Also, Microsoft is in the cloud programming business with various databases and programming paradigms. 

All three approaches deserve to be tried out, though I must say that the legacy vendors have a lot to lose in the competition. Databases and tools determine whose overarching paradigm will rule for the next decade. Will it be Microsoft with its exposed and complex stack that requires a great deal of sophistication to work with? Will it be Oracle with its insular approach? Or will it be Salesforce? For Salesforce to win the company will have to play the disrupter -- something the company’s chairman and CEO, Marc Benioff, relishes.

At stake is a big pile of chips in the middle of the table, and while it’s too early to say which way this will go -- and it is very likely that each vendor will carve out a niche -- the entry of a seasoned disruptor into the fray is being taken seriously by all parties. The battle for CRM supremacy has been a polite warm-up for the main event in databases and tools. Salesforce is in the competition, and Dreamforce showed all the pieces of its puzzle if you paid attention.  That’s why I think Dreamforce, despite the social cacophony, was about developers.

 

 

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