The hardest part of creating a successful software application is often not the coding — it's getting that product out to its intended market.
The on-demand model of delivering software from a host system across the Internet has eliminated some of the requirements for packaging and distribution of the software and updates. But it still leaves developers with the requirement to create market awareness and sales channels for their products.
Salesforce.com's AppExchange platform offers a possible alternative to the do-it-yourself model of selling and marketing of on-demand applications, by providing a marketplace for application developers to display their software, while providing both the hosting and billing infrastructure required to operate and monetise each application. At the time of its launch, Salesforce.com chief executive Marc Benioff described it as the "eBay for applications".
But it is not a free ride. To host their software on AppExchange, a software developer pays an up-front fee in the region of US$5,000.
At its annual Dreamforce conference in San Francisco in September, the company unveiled two new initiatives designed to further ease the path of potential developers who want to create applications for Salesforce.com's platform.
Its Visualforce technology provides developers with tools to create any form of user interface they choose, rather than be restricted to the original interface as developed by Salesforce.com. Visualforce provides a page-based model based on standard HTML and Web presentation technologies.
Visualforce forms part of what the company has dubbed the Force.com platform, which also wraps up existing developments such as Salesforce.com's Apex code base to provide what the company describes as a complete, scalable service.
According to Salesforce.com co-founder and chief technology officer Parker Harris, when Visualforce is combined with the Apex code, it is now possible to develop 100 percent native on-demand applications.
"If you look at the AppExchange, a lot of the partners with deep applications are actually hosting some code on their own servers — mainly because in the past we did not have the technology to allow them to fully manipulate our user interface," Harris said.
"They don't need any servers, and no infrastructure — it is all running on our servers with disaster recovery, security and high performance."
The Apex Code has now been bundled with some sandbox tools and is being sold at a discounted price of US$25 per licence until the end of the year.
Former Salesforce.com employee and now independent software developer Steve Buikhuizen said the changes better meet the desires of developers for a three-layer architecture of model, view and control.
"Salesforce, up until now, had the model and the controller, but it didn't have the view," Buikhuizen said. "So they have finally completed the conventional picture of a development platform that developers expect. They no longer need to build that view component using their own servers or some other third party."
Word is yet to catch on in Australia however. Salesforce.com's vice president of international operations, Doug Farber, said while a large percentage of local customers are accessing AppExchange applications, it has been customers, not developers, who have contributed the bulk of local applications. Farber said the company has yet to put any dedicated staff into Australia to work with the developer community, but he expects that gap to be filed before the end of the year.
One of the first Australian developers to post an application to the AppExchange is Sqware Peg, a Sydney-based provider of on-demand customer management and marketing systems. Founder Shawn Stilwell said the company posted its first application, which extended SMS text messaging features into Salesforce.com, a year ago.
"We found it quite interesting that we had demand coming from global customers, that we would have never been able to reach before," Stilwell said. "We have the ability to sell our software through this common platform. If you push it [the software] up once, you've got exposure to 30,000 customers."
Stilwell said the company had been planning to build the SMS application before the unveiling of the AppExchange, but its arrival made it an obvious choice as a development platform. The first approach from a customer came within days of the SMS application being posted, and over 200 downloads of the software have since been recorded.
The only drawback however is that Sqware Peg must now also provide global support.
"If you've got customers coming to you from Europe or the US or Japan, and you're in different time zones, that's something to be ready for," Stilwell said.
The company is looking to release three more products through the AppExchange before the end of the year, including a new version of the SMS product, and two other marketing applications.
Stilwell said the costs of posting to AppExchange do not even compare to what would be required to build the same infrastructure to support Sqware Peg's products. However, he says that as other on-demand platforms become available, Sqware Peg will migrate its product to those as well to maximise its exposure.