Intuit enters the PaaS wars

What Salesforce.com and WebEx have always talked about doing with their PaaS platforms, Intuit is now doing with QuickBase -- and with a much bigger developer ecosystem.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

The key to the success of a platform is establishing a virtuous circle of eager customers and willing developers. The technology is just the starting point. You need enough customers to create a market for the add-ons and applications developers create. It's even more important to get developers enthused about developing for the platform so that when customers come looking for third-party add-ons and applications, the cupboard won't be bare. For the past few years, we've watched as Salesforce.com slowly built out its AppExchange partner base, while hearing WebEx promise to do the same with its Connect ecosystem, but without so far delivering a production version [disclosure: both companies are clients]. At times, it's been like watching paint dry.

In recent weeks, there's been a sudden blaze of competition in the PaaS wars. Google has brought its developer ecosystem into the game, with both the launch of the (currently consumer-focused App Engine) and the unveiling of its enterprise-focused Solutions Marketplace. Smaller players are bubbling up too, including Coghead with the launch of its application Gallery and Bungee Labs [also see disclosure].

But all these efforts are overshadowed by Intuit's launch of its QuickBase Developer Program. QuickBase, which I previously covered in February, is an on-demand database development platform with a pedigree that goes back almost ten years, but it's only in the past year or two that Intuit has really started investing in the platform. The developer program, announced just in time for last week's Web 2.0 Expo, is backed up by some serious technology assets, including a new Flex-based user interface, support for the Eclipse development environment and a ready-built connection to financial data stored in QuickBooks. It's also been framed as a cloud service, offering utility pricing for developers, as well as a complete billing system that allows them to set their own customer pricing and manage the customer relationship — functionality that I've frequently criticized AppExchange for lacking.

What's most impressive, though, is Intuit's ready-made partner base of 75,000 QuickBooks developers, all of them not only experienced in delivering applications to business customers but trusted by them too. QuickBase general manager Bill Lucchini told me that a survey Intuit commissioned found that a staggering 86 percent of them thought they were likely to develop on the platform — a figure so high he was reluctant to believe it himself, and yet if there's demand for PaaS-style solutions in the SMB market, why wouldn't Intuit's platform be the one best placed to fulfil it? (And among larger enterprises too, which account for the majority of QuickBase's 250,000 current users). On top of that, you have to factor in the huge installed base that Intuit has with QuickBooks and other products. As the Intuit PR machine puts it, that's a potential user base of "200 25 million employees of companies that use QuickBooks" [sorry, that was my error]. In the quest for eager customers and willing developers to fuel ecosystem success, those are numbers [even as corrected] to die for.

The quest to win developer hearts and minds is what has always driven Marc Benioff to pump up the hype around Salesforce.com's AppExchange — the company needs an ecosystem of developers to take it forward. Yet even with all of Benioff's powerful bluster, it's been a hard slog. More than two years after the debut of AppExchange — and five years after the Salesforce.com platform first emerged under its original sforce branding — the network has attracted a little over 400 ISVs. Between them, according to figures quoted by Benioff at the Tour de Force kick-off event in January, they had achieved 38,000 customer installs — an average 95 installs per ISV, a figure that must have left quite a few of them mightily disappointed.

QuickBase may seem an unlikely competitor — certainly an understated one — to Salesforce.com's oft-repeated platform ambitions. But the numbers speak for themselves, and Lucchini knows exactly what Intuit has to do with its PaaS platform. "It's not just a way [for developers] to create a technology, it's a way to build a real business on this platform," he told me. The ready-made partner base gives Intuit a huge opportunity to build momentum for QuickBase and become a prime contender in the PaaS wars.

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