Citizen developer, Salesforce is here to help

Salesforce App Cloud takes non-programmers another step toward creating surpisingly useful applications. How far can low-code/no-code go?

Citizen developer, Salesforce is here to help
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It might surprise you to learn that Gartner’s most recent Magic Quadrant report on PaaS, published in March, puts Salesforce in the upper right position. Gartner calls Salesforce “by far the largest provider ... by revenue and customer base.”

No doubt this success stems largely from the popularity of Salesforce itself, with customers of the CRM offering accounting for the vast majority of developers on the proprietary Force.com PaaS, as well as a big chunk of those on the multi-lingual Heroku PaaS (acquired by Salesforce in 2010).

Another factor is that the major PaaS competition has been slow to materialize -- with Google, IBM, Microsoft, Pivotal, Red Hat, and others gaining traction in the enterprise incrementally.

But I believe another advantage has been Salesforce’s determination to go further than any other major PaaS provider to support the so-called citizen developer. Lightning App Builder, announced at Dreamforce 2014, now gives users the ability to build applications by dragging and dropping them together. It extends a Salesforce tradition of encouraging customers to configure rather than code.

As we head into Dreamforce 2015 -- billed in typical P. T. Benioff fashion as “the largest software conference on earth” -- the big announcement so far is PaaS-related: App Cloud, an augmentation of Salesforce1, which pulls together Force.com, Heroku, and the Salesforce Marketing Cloud into a sort of meta-PaaS. The only brand new features in App Cloud (as far as I can tell) are the identity management, isolation, and geographic region features being added to Heroku. But App Cloud aggregates other capabilities, too.

The first quarter of 2016 will bring Lightning App Builder users prebuilt components based on Salesforce’s slick new Lightning UI. To provide an easy on-ramp, Salesforce also offers Trailhead, a series of training MOOCs to serve a range of developers, from the drag-and-drop crowd to fluent coders. The Salesforce Lightning Design System, a CSS framework consistent with the new Salesforce UI, is also available for download.

So basically, Salesforce is bending over backwards to make it as easy as possible for citizen developers to build what they want. Nine months ago, InfoWorld’s Martin Heller already felt that the Salesforce1 platform did a good job of delivering a low-code/no-code solution for mobile app dev: “Without any work, Salesforce1 can create a mobile view of your Salesforce site; with some effort, a relatively low-skilled developer can turn that into a usable mobile Web app.”

Now we’re entering a new phase, and it’s going to fascinating to see how far App Cloud can stretch to empower non-coders.

On the one hand, when non-programmers build apps, you can argue that (as with Salesforce’s original front-end customization model) they’re merely configuring an extremely flexible meta-application rather than really building anything. No one can possibly anticipate what capabilities citizen developers may need or want, so quite a bit of the time users will hit a wall and run out of options.

On the other hand, most of these custom applications fall in a particular domain: Sales and marketing software for customers, partners, or employees. The common features of such applications are well known, so the missing stuff will likely be related to features or data associated with a particular vertical market.

No coincidence, then, that Salesforce has already ventured into vertical CRM. Today it lists a full roster: financial services, healthcare, life sciences, communications, retail, media, government, manufacturing, automotive, higher education, and the nonprofit sector. The more underlying services specific to those verticals that Salesforce exposes in App Cloud, the more pre-built, domain-specific stuff citizen developers will be able to string together.

Finally, don’t forget Salesforce Wave Analytics. At the present time, REST APIs for Wave are available only in a pilot program for select customers, but you can easily imagine that Salesforce would want to open up a slew of analytics APIs to developers over time. For good reason: IBM’s entire cloud strategy, for example, relies on the notion that cloud analytics will be integral to a new generation of enterprise applications.

At the very least, the multi-PaaS nature of Salesforce’s approach could make Lightning App Builder a killer internal communications tool. Rather than the arduous gathering of requirements, rapid prototyping has become the first phase of most modern app dev projects. Why not enable your smartest users to build those prototypes and have programmers on Heroku or Force.com to wire things together properly? Sure, that will still incur some back and forth, but that’s all part of the agile process.

Some people envision a day when users will string together nearly all applications and developers become obsolete, with artificially intelligent developer bots in the cloud (or something) taking care of all the messy plumbing. Well, maybe someday. To find out how empowered citizen developers may become in the nearer term, keep a close eye on App Cloud.

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