Right now, some may look like the online equivalent of a quaint corner store. But catalogs of online applications are the front lines of a brewing battle among platform-as-a-service providers.
Start-up Coghead on Tuesday plans to launch Coghead Gallery, an online store where people in small businesses can hunt for applications.
The applications, written with Coghead's visual-development tool, run on its hosted platform. The platform, built using Adobe Systems' Flex, runs on Amazon Web Services.
At the start, there will be about 30 partners listing their business applications. Coghead's software is aimed at small development shops or tech-savvy businesspeople.
Although far smaller, its approach is similar to that of Salesforce.com's AppExchange, where people can find more than 800 customized applications written for Salesforce's development platform.
Hosted development platforms and tools, also called platform-as-a-service, are where a lot of software development is going, according to Web entrepreneurs. Rather than purchase a rack of servers and a software stack to run applications, developers can rely on a hosted platform to offer on-demand applications.
For platform providers, building the largest ecosystem of online Web developers helps accrue business, much the way Microsoft woos users of its development tools to drive sales of Windows and other stack software.
Although not a complete development environment, the latest entrant to this platform-as-a-service category is Google, with its App Engine, still in beta test version. Google now lets developers run their Python applications on the company's massive computing infrastructure.
Last week, Google opened up its own marketplace for listing third-party applications written for its enterprise products, including Google Apps and its search appliance. And on Monday, Google and Salesforce announced that Salesforce's customer relationship management, or CRM, applications, will be integrated into Google Apps through the Salesforce development platform, Force.com.
Open source comes to platform-as-a-service
Coghead's development service and gallery are specifically aimed at small businesses, both developers and customers. It is aiming to recruit value-added resellers or independent consultants with 2 to 20 people, according to company CEO Paul McNamara.
With a hosted development environment, they can write a Web application and get into the software-as-a-service business, he said.
"They used to sell their time for money by doing custom application development. It's a tough business because you're always chasing your next lunch, and if you take vacation, you aren't billing," McNamara said.
"Our value to them is that we let them transform the business by building an application for one customer and then selling it to other customers around the world," he said.
Ultimately, this model is disruptive because many more companies can get off the ground without the need for a large capital investment from venture investors, McNamara said. He added that Salesforce's AppExchange tends to focus more on large independent software vendors, or ISVs.
Developers on the Gallery can choose to take an open-source approach to listing, called the Open Definition model. They can make the template for their application available to others to copy, modify, and distribute--much like open-source projects allow people to tweak the source code.
Since most people don't actually work with source code when they use the Coghead service, they aren't actually using the source code. Another class of applications will be "IP protected," which means that customers can't copy and modify the applications.
Coghead plans to make money from Gallery by collecting a monthly fee for using the platform and listing the applications.