Free as in Platform

Marc Benioff took the stage at the first of a global Tour de Force to get out in front of the scramble for software as a service bragging rights. On the surface, the event features a continuation of the alliance between Salesforce and Google’s Apps services. Behind the scenes, this is an old fashioned land grab for developers, trying to pry them off Visual Studio and .Net and into the benefits of collaborative on demand services.

Sales, marketing, call center, innovation and idea management – these are the applications Salesforce has been building out for the past decade. Today’s new message is the platform, or development as a service in community speak. Benioff has always used the language of the technorati as a way of bootstrapping what started as a no-software mantra. Web services, mashups, social media – all of these memes float through the evolution of the company as it tries (and mostly succeeds) in staying ahead of its growth with reliable service.

Meanwhile, Google has used the same tactics in building out first Gmail and then the rest of the Apps. The recent launch of Gmail Labs attempts to leverage users as testers for features, with the implication that the strategy will spread out via Gchat, Google Reader, Docs/Spreadsheet/etc. and into the granular infrastructure underlying these tools, namely AppEngine and the Google APIs that reach into storage, social graph, and feeds.

When Benioff says you can leave your infrastructure worries behind and focus on the applications, he’s counting on you trusting the multi-tenant pod architecture, security certifications, and transparent reporting of availability. The Salesforce (or Force) platform abstracts into database, workflow, and code as services, running VisualForce UI code over the wire built in the Eclipse IDE hosted like the rest of it on Force data servers.

To the extent that Salesforce can capture business processes inside this on demand development cloud, they can profit from association with Google and their Data APIs, which allow connecting the Salesforce and Google clouds with extensions to the underlying Google Apps. To the extent that Google can undermine developer confidence in Microsoft pivoting to slow the dev drain from Office tools, the marriage of the two companies will continue to bear fruit.

But before we bury Microsoft or Apple or perhaps an alliance of independent cloud vendors, pause to consider Salesforce’s Adam Gross when he demos integration of financial services vendor CODA’s 2go accounting app on the new composite platform. He signs in to a Google Gadget and suggests proudly that the customer may not even know he’s using Google code. If they don’t know it, that relationship can be disrupted further down the road by a similar platform with some other advantages. Those might be closer affinity with vertical communities, richer integration with media, and more efficient mining of user behavior in return for economic incentives.

Apple is moving quickly (even using third party frameworks such as SproutCore) to lock in users across the MobileMe/iPhone platform. And Microsoft’s Live Desktop may be coming much sooner than is commonly understood. For now, Google and Salesforce are preaching welcome to all comers, but it should get interesting if Microsoft takes them up on the offer.

A conversation with Salesforce VP Platform Marketing Adam Gross