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By now, you've probably heard about AppExchange and APEX; two salesforce.com initiatives that are designed to take the salesforce.com ecosytem to the next level. AppExchange is about applications that work with salesforce.com. APEX is about a programming language that developers can use to program salesforce.com almost as though it were an operating system (in fact some, including me, would say it is). The point at which software ecosystems like the ones for DOS, Windows, Linux, OS/2, and the Web start to hockey stick (read: experience steep growth) is when the core platform has proven itself in the market (lots of users), there's a substantial library of third party applications, and, through programming languages that can access the many application programming interfaces in the platform, the barrier to developing innovative applications on that platform is significantly lowered.
This may not be the way the folks at salesforce.com put it, but AppExchange is sort of like the Certified for Windows Program (which Intuit has apparently eschewed from time to time). Much the same way there are a bunch of applications designed to work with Windows, there's a growing library of applications -- most of them Web-based -- that are designed to work with salesforce.com. But there's probably one aspect of the salesforce-APEX-AppExchange ecosystem that's severely underappreciated. One key difference between salesforce and Windows (and a convenient one at that) is the channel through which compatible software is published and delivered by developes, and acquired by end-users. In the old days (of locally run operating systems), you purchased the operating system in one place, and then you went to others to get the software. Ask yourself this: How easy is it to go to Microsoft's Web site and get third-pary software that runs on Windows?
Now take a look at salesforce.com. Practically built-in to salesforce.com's end-user interface is direct access to the "AppExchange Marketplace" and any one of the currently 447 applications that are designed to work with salesforce.com. Is there something that salesforce.com doesn't do? Or something it doesn't do as well as you'd like it to? Then there's a chance that one of the apps listed in the AppExchange Marketplace is designed to overcome the limitation.
Then, for most of those applications, pulling the app directly into your salesforce.com context is actually easier than installing software on your local PC. In most cases, it simply appears as another tab amongst the standard tabs for Leads, Campaigns, Contacts, Products, etc (see partial screen shot of standard salesforce.com tabs above).
The supply-side of "the channel" (a side that, for locally installed software, still includes a massive amount of investment in order to get a software title into the market) is equally simplified for developers or, what salesforce.com refers to as AppExchange Partners. Whereas with older software ecosystems, software had to be thoroughly tested before it was pressed on to media or CDs, then packaged, and sent into the market for stocking on shelves (oh, the labor! the infrastructure! the expense!), developers in the salesforce ecosystem start by going to salesforce.com's "Publish" tab (see partial screen shot, right) and following the directions to add their application to the AppExchange network. Just like with certified for Windows applications, the app must pass muster with AppExchange's gatekeepers.
Via telephone today, salesforce.com vice president of Developer Marketing Adam Gross told me that there are two ways a developer can particpate. One is where there's no cost to the developer to publish a salesforce add-on into AppExchange and all salesforce.com does before allowing into the program is make sure that the add-on conforms to some basic rules (eg: make sure it installs correctly, has a complete description, etc.). The other is where, for $5,000 per application, salesforce.com puts the application through a more rigorous set of design, performance and security tests: a regimen that results in salesforce.com's certification or what Gross refers to as "our Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."
The bottom line is that between the contextual retrieval of an application into the salesforce.com user interface and the significantly lowered barrier to entry in order for a developer to get an application on the list of applications that a salesforce user might contextually retrieve, the salesforce.com ecosystem is very likely going to be the model that others emulate over time (if they're not already). Add to that the APEX programming language -- a language that itself lowers the barrier to entry in terms of giving developers the ability to develop on-demand applications that run on the salesforce infrastructure, and you can see why, at the very least, the salesforce.com ecosystem has necessary moving parts (and very Web 2.0-esque moving parts at that) for growth.
Since saleforce.com first came out, we here at ZDNet (me, Dan, others) have spent plenty of time covering salesforce.com itself. But I personally haven't spent too much time with some of the AppExchange software developers or the company's customers. Recently, salesforce.com held one of those smaller regional customer events (just like lots of IT vendors do) and I decided to head over there with the video camera to see if I could get some of the AppExchange partners to talk about what they had to give ZDNet's audience an idea of some of the 3rd party applications that showing up in "support" of salesforce.com.
One of those was VerticalResponse. If you've ever used salesforce.com to stay in touch with some segment of your customer-base via e-mail, then you'd know that salesforce.com has two limitations that can force you into some pretty unnatural acts to get the job done. The first of these limitations is that salesforce cannot send any more than 1000 e-mails a day on your behalf. The second is that no single "send" can exceed 250. So, if you need to reach 1200 of your customers with an e-mail, doing it with salesforce.com requires you to come up with some fairly arbitrary database slices in order to send no more than 1000 in a day, and no more than 250 in one send.
Coming to the rescue are several AppExchange partners that specialize in volume e-mail. One is ExactTarget. The other is VerticalResponse. While at the Boston event, I caught up with the folks at VerticalResponse for a quick demonstration of how their AppExchange plug-in not only how it overcomes the standard limitations of salesforce.com, but also how it has an interesting pay-per-send business model. Here's the video: