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Amazon, eBay, Google Pitch Woo to Developers

Consumer Web powers want business development, developers on their platforms.

For the past few years, the software tools battle has swirled around the Microsoft vs. the Java-oriented "Anyone But Microsoft" front.

However there are a lot more interesting things going on. When BusinessWeek picks up on the "cloud computing" craze as a cover story, the concept is fully baked.

This "cloud" -- comprising ubiquitous Web connectivity and huge vendor-sponsored data centers -- has got Web players positioning themselves as tool providers to next-gen development stars.

For example, Amazon.com, eBay, Google, Facebook, famous for their consumer-centric Web savvy, are all making more development technology -- which taps into their established infrastructure -- available to third-party developers.

Given the consumerist focus of these vendors, the question is whether corporate development managers should pay attention to these new toolsets. And the answer is: absolutely yes -- if they want to stay relevant.

"Everyone should care. This is a far more interesting, more germane question than anything to do with Microsoft. The Web has won. The Web is the killer platform. We're in a situation where anyone and everyone in the software world is forced to find a way to leverage interesting and innovative platform extractions," said Matt Howard, co-founder and CEO of SMBLive, a provider of mail and collaboration services to small businesses.

Howard blogged recently about how businesses should take Facebook's entry into development tools seriously.

Paul Barter, vice president of strategy at T4G, a Toronto-based software services shop concurred. "We're moving to a world where Google runs the biggest computer with Microsoft not far behind and others like IBM and Yahoo among the few others that have the scale to build these massive data centers," he said.

With all of that compute power up for grabs, in-house developers better know how to take advantage of it. "We're in the services business so we have to watch this. We may not be big by Google standards but Gartner says that 40 percent of the products and associated services out there today will not exist in three years. So we have to figure that some of our services business will go away and replace them to keep growing," Barter noted.

Dana Gardner, principal with Inter-Arbor Solutions, a Gilford, N.H.-based consultancy, says developers ignore these newcomers at their peril.

"Amazon has a database, it has storage. If you have storage, database [services] why not go the full step and also offer tools and services?" he asked. Ditto eBay. The online auction powerhouse offers a developer environment and APIs so developers can use its auction capability in other mash ups. And forget that Salesforce.com also offers a "powerful ecology" for developers, Gardner said.

In fact, Amazon.com already fields development tools, tutorials and other content for developers. The company claims 290,000 registered developers. Its target audience is any software developer who wants to take advantage of Amazon's own infrastructure which is a world-beater in transaction support, said Amazon.com spokeswoman Kay Kinton.

Amazon.coms infrastructure includes storage services and associated tools like C sharp libraries and tutorials on how to use Ruby in this environment; the Elastic Compute Cloud; and new database services which were made available for testing in December.

The goal for Amazon Web Services is to "expose our technology and other assets to the developer community -- developers will be able to innovate on top of our technology in new and interesting ways," Kinton said.

Cloud king Google is not standing still. It's recruiting developers to work with the Google Web Toolkit, and the company is dangling the lure of the world's biggest application platform.

Microsoft is reacting in ways to preserve its Visual Studio dominance for developers who see target environments beyond Windows. Witness its Silverlight and Volta toolsets that aim to let .NET developers keep using .NET-supported languages to write applications that will run outside the Windows world.

"Microsoft wants you to write in Visual Studio, drop it into a .NET container and run it in the cloud," Gardner said.

But the advantage for the newer entries to the development sweepstakes is they're attacking from a portal perspective and are not reliant on the traditional software license sales revenue that incumbents like Microsoft and IBM have come to depend on, he noted.

Given the new-age tools and environments coming online, Gardner says that the large mobile telecom providers will also get into the act. "If you've got the network and the infrastructure and are already charging on subscription basis, you will want to be seducing developers to put their stuff in your cloud," he noted.

"This is a 'when' and not an 'if,'" Gardner said.

Developers should also keep an eye on the environments and tools from applications players like Salesforce.com and NetSuite.

Saleforce.com's Force platform includes Apex, a C-sharp like language, and Visualforce, a user interface development framework announced last year.

Force.com demonstrates the advantage of developing for a SaaS model in that the infrastructural heavy lifting -- the server farms, the databases, the storage, the security -- is handled by the vendor itself, so developers and their managers don't have to sweat that stuff.

"When you develop from scratch, you have to build all that stuff and test it and debug it and performance test . Cloud computing really lets you build on existing infrastructure," noted Eric Berridge, co-founder and principal of Blue Wolf, a New York-based services and custom development shop and an early Salesforce.com partner.

Steve Jones, CEO of Explore Consulting, Bellevue, Wash., gives a similar shout out to NetSuite's SuiteFlex environment. NetSuite, which launched its long-awaited IPO in December, pioneered ERP-as-a-service with its suite and is now touting SuiteFlex to developers who might want to partake of their cloud.

SuiteFlex lets Explore integrate the hosted NetSuite applications into legacy applications that may run on premise.

"We use the Web services-based integration and it lets us do a lot of extensibility there's a point -- and click interface for a lot of customization but there's also server- and client-side scripting," Jones said.

Both NetSuite and Salesforce.com rely heavily on Oracle databases and Linux, although they treat that as a black box. The secret here is in "abstracting" out the base technology but leave enough room at the top for customization and verticalization

"We could replace Oracle with MySQL and no one would know. Or replace our Java application servers with .NET servers," said Steve Fisher, senior vice president of Salesforce.com's platform division. "We provide a higher level abstraction where we define to what database means using point-and-click tools to define tables and columns without having to go down to low level of Oracle's command line for creating tables and columns. You just use point-and-click tools or you can define your schema in XML and we define that into underlying definition that Oracle and Java understands."

That appliance model is what's new in cloud computing and what represents a threat to Microsoft's traditional "integrated stack" message which preaches that customers get the most value when the underlying operating system, database, and application stack all come from that company. With the largely Linux-oriented services fielded by Google, Salesforce.com and others, the Windows value proposition is heavily discounted.

Microsoft's SaaS view -- it prefers the term "software plus services" -- is an admission that the world has changed -- that the Web is the platform. But of course, Microsoft still wants its stack -- whether or not it's based on the current Windows code base, is part of the Web cloud.

While Salesforce.com and NetSuite are entrenched in the business world. The wild card is where the consumer-oriented social networking sites will play. All of them are making their case to business customers.

Traditionalists remain unconvinced that there is business value in such hyped properties as Second Life despite IBM's continuous drumbeat.

Still, take a look at the viral nature of Scrabulous, the online Scrabble game clone that took Facebook by storm. SMBLive's Howard says in the year since Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg talked up his company's development platform, there have been hundreds of apps, many of them developed by businesses. Microsoft must see something there, having invested $240 million for a stake in Facebook in November.

"Everyone and anyone from the local florist to a frat kid to political organizations are doing Facebook apps."

Howard says one of SMBLive's customers, a florist, has its own Facebook application that lets users send virtual flowers. The appeal there is that most people have to send flowers to someone a couple times a year and if that virtual florist is in your mind, you're more likely to use it for your real flower needs.

Of course many corporate developers will want to continue to use the languages they know. But they're no longer assuming Windows as their target environment.

And that's why everyone from Amazon to Google is offering up freebie tools. "They all want to woo developers to their platform," Howard says.

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