Salesforce buys Heroku – Will This Give Them the Developer Cred? A Q&A with Salesforce

Just yesterday I was talking with some people attending the annual salesforce.com conference and commented that at the developer event on Monday there seemed a distinct lack of the feisty young developers that hackathons normally attract. I was surprised to hear that at the hackathon itself there were very few entries – what could be going on here? After all this is salesforce – the company that mainsteamed the cloud and has an extensive development offering with force.com.

As I commented to people here – there was a real disconnect between the ever increasing enterprise-centricity of the core salesforce products, and those developers hacking away products in garages around the world.

And then what do you know, salesforce goes and buys Heroku the Ruby application platform. As ReadWriteWeb points out, Ruby is one of the fastest growing programming languages on the web, and Heroku has been seeing rapid growth. Bear in mind here that Ruby is arguably the language most used by the very developers that salesforce wants to retain (or gain) credibility with – so will this acquisition gel nicely for them? Bear in mind that this comes on top of the database offering that salesforce pre-announced yesterday.

Some questions still remain. In order to get some answers I spoke with salesforce CMO, Kendall Collins and co-founder of Heroku, James Lindenbaum. So what are the questions I see remaining?

Pricing

Q – The question in both the database offering and the Ruby acquisition comes down to salesforce’s strategy with pricing, and their willingness to forego revenue in order to gain developer loyalty. I draw parallels between the potential here, and the moves we’ve seen to launch a free version of Chatter – salesforce has realized that it’s worth there while sacrificing revenue in order to gain mindshare. If anything this is going to be an even bigger issue with the Heroku deal.

A – Collins advised no change will occue with Heroku – they appreciate the momentum that Heroku has gained and aren’t intending to change the pricing structure. That’s one tick that will make developers happy.

Backend Infrastructure

Q – Heroku has seen great uptake in part because it was backended by Amazon Web Services, arguably the most commoditized of cloud offerings. Developers using Heroku will be sensitive to any changes that see them forced to use a different backend or, worse, forced to pay more for the service.

A – Lindenbaum says that Heroku really loves the Amazon service and are focused on creating a vibrant ecosystem that answers the demands of its developers. Heroku will continue to grow its offering and intends to expand to other infrastructure providers as customer use cases demand. Lindenbaum used PCI compliance as one area where (for example) using salesforce infrastructure may be a good move for the Heroku offering.

Developer cred

Q – While some have suggested that the dual database.com and Heroku moves give salesforce an “instant leg up in the community stakes with a claimed 1 million developers using the Ruby platform and 105,000 Heroku built application” the reality may be different – developers (especially the sort of scrappy ones who go on to build offerings like Twitter, Groupon and 37Signals, rail (pun intended) at any perception of loss of ownership of the community products they use – true Heroku was never an OpenSource project, but acquisition by salesforce will dent the “cool cred” that Heroku currently has.

Having said that, salesforce isn’t worried about the consumer end of the spectrum and realizes that a number of development houses are doing enteprrise level development using Heroku – this acquisition just gave them he ability to really ramp up their PaaS offerings to a way broader community than before. Does it mean we’ll see developers inside

A – Lindenbaum gave a cry of defiance here – “we are those guys” he said, referring to the garage hackers that Heroku has built their community on. Sagely he advises users to watch and wait and see how Heroku is developed over the next three to six months – the intention is to continue to build things out in ways that are positive for the development community.

Summary

The proof of the pudding is in a year from now when we see what DreamForce 2011 brings – I’d be hopeful that we see a developer zone with hundreds of applications as proof that the dual database.com and Heroku deals have bought salesforce the developer mojo it craves. Time will tell how that goes, salesforce will be hoping that comments such as the one below (regarding salesforce’s infrastructure intentions with Heroku) are rogue and not indicative of any groundswell against this deal.

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Disclosure – Salesforce covered my T&E to attend DreamForce

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