Could Salesforce be reengineering its AppExchange platform to run standards-based code like HTML 5? The reason I ask is that none other than Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff listed his status on Facebook this weekend as: "working on salesforce.com's new architecture." There would have to be a very good reason, or a transformational event like Google's introduction of its Wave, for the company to change a key element of its strategy.
Wave is an application in its own right, but making a public demonstration was Google's way of rallying developers to the cause of standards-based Web development; what Google has in effect done is plant a flag in cyberspace with its rapidly-growing, standards-based Chrome browser, and announce to the world that Web development with functionality equal to anything running on a local client has arrived. It's not just Google either; now programmers can develop knowing that Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari browser, as well as 80% of smartphone browsers shipped (including operating systems from Research in Motion, Palm, Nokia and, of course, the iPhone) also support HTML 5. That's quite a market to shoot for.
If a critical mass of developers start creating standards-based applications, it would provide a huge lift to smaller application vendors like Zoho. Large vendors of proprietary software, like SAP, Oracle and Microsoft, have enough critical mass in the market to attract thousands of developers to their platforms, but there has never been a counterweight as powerful as HTML 5.
Salesforce applications run on a proprietary Java-based language called Apex, which Salesforce developed in order to give its cloud-based applications the flexibility needed to interoperate with software running behind enterprise firewalls. Without Apex, customers would have to run Salesforce applications out of the box, limited in their ability to customize and connect Salesforce applications to other systems. For all its talk about Web-based applications and the Cloud, Salesforce is in many ways like the very proprietary software vendors against whom it has rebelled.
The advent of HTML as a prevalent standards for Web development presents a quandary for Salesforce: does it give up the language that supports its applications and its ecosystem of third-party vendors, or does it continue using a proprietary language that alienates it from a huge number of developers who will end up innovating for rival vendors?
Switching from Apex, though, will be no mean engineering feat, and may inconvenience or even cause failures for many Salesforce customers. But this is also the kind of visionary step that a leader like Benioff, a wunderkind developer who has always wanted to leave his mark, might find too enticing to ignore. Moreover, Benioff has often spoken of Salesforce as a Google for business, a claim he wouldn't be able to make any longer unless he changed his code base.
Meanwhile, his Facebook status doesn't read: "Surf's up in Oahu, dude." I suppose we'll find out what he's up to soon enough, and Benioff's Facebook friends have been generous with their suggestions. Allen Lin wrote: "salesforce needs a UI overhaul. needs to be smoother," and Dennis Moore suggested, "I agree that a UI overhaul is needed, but I would suggest increasing the volume of semantic links built into the UI, plus separating out and visualizing process."
Neither of those suggestions smack of the massive kind of shift an architectural change represents, which is why I think it's a lot more than that.
[Image source: Marc Benioff's Facebook image of the "Real Time Cloud."]