Salesforce, Cloudflare Entice A.I. App Developers To Build On Their Platforms

Two big San Francisco tech companies put out the welcome mat for third party developers this week, hoping to enrich their platforms with new apps that make use of artificial intelligence tools and other novel capabilities.

Both Salesforce and Cloudflare are offering developers a large ready-made user base, tech support, and a shot at pools of investor money, if developers house their apps inside these existing networks. Cloudflare has developed technology to enhance Internet performance, and Salesforce is the big customer relationship management software provider.

Salesforce is inviting outside developers to use its new AI tools to create sales and marketing apps enhanced with AI elements such as deep learning and visual analysis.

Salesforce (NYSE: CRM) wants to augment its software platform with apps that can, for example, analyze the mood of consumers’ online messages so that its clients in retail can prioritize their service calls to shoppers who are clearly feeling cranky.

That ability to classify the tone of online comments is one of the features of Salesforce’s AI toolkit, Einstein Platform Services, which the company is opening up to developers who want to improve or customize interactions with buyers. The mood classifier, called Einstein Sentiment, is one of the AI elements Salesforce has in beta testing or pilot programs. Another tool is Einstein Intent, which figures out the main goal of a customer inquiry—a starting point for tailoring the best response. Developers can also use Einstein Object Detection to teach their AIs to recognize products on a shelf, for example—a possible boon for inventory management or other purposes.

Salesforce is offering another way to make it easier for app developers to enrich the menu of smart apps on its platform—a sort of in-house code school. The company’s free interactive online learning site, Trailhead, now includes learning pathways offered by Atlassian, which trains teams in agile software development, and GitHub, a community site where programmers can collaborate on projects and also showcase their coding chops.

Salesforce announced its new AI initiatives Wednesday at TrailheaDX, a two-day conference in San Francisco for people who learn to be Salesforce developers or administrators by completing educational “trails” on the learning site, and accumulating merit badges to mark their achievements. The conference includes more than 180 workshops for developers on topics that include AI, as well as mobile app development and security.

Another conference event is Dreampitch, a competition among three startups whose apps are embedded in the Salesforce platform. The winner gets a $50,000 investment from Salesforce Ventures.

Like Salesforce, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince sees new AI-enhanced apps as a significant opportunity for his company, which claims six million users. He also makes a case that Cloudflare’s Web infrastructure can make AI and other outsider apps work better than they would with standard Internet access.

Cloudflare aims to increase the speed of data delivery—from uploading Web pages to displaying on-screen explosions triggered by videogame bazookas. The company does this by means such as routing clients’ data around failure points in the Internet, and balancing the loads of Web traffic among all the servers a client uses to store and process information. Cloudflare’s service also includes data security features.

Like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, Cloudflare is trying to nurture the formation of a developer community to create apps that expand the ways people can use its core offerings.

“You want a vibrant ecosystem,” Prince (pictured) says.

Large companies such as Zendesk, Spotify, Oracle, Twitter, and Pinterest already have apps grounded in Cloudflare’s network. For example, when Cloudflare clients add a free Pinterest widget to their websites, visitors can capture any object’s image on a page and add it to their Pinterest pinboards.

Cloudflare now wants startups to add creative, and even disruptive apps to the mix, and it’s holding out incentives in the form of potential funding from its VC partners. On Tuesday, the company announced the formation of a $100 million Cloudflare Developer Fund backed initially by three venture capital firms—New Enterprise Associates (NEA), Venrock, and Pelion Venture Partners.

Apps built on the Cloudflare Apps Platform have the option to charge fees to Cloudflare customers who want to use the apps on their Web or mobile pages. Prince says some paid apps already exist on Cloudflare, such as data analytics and SEO optimization features.

How would a developer interested in e-commerce, for example, decide whether to build an app on Salesforce, or on Cloudflare? Should developers be concerned about limiting the market for their apps to users that come from a specific company network?

Prince says the answers depend on the developer’s priorities for the app. Some apps designed for a particular client would be easier to build on Salesforce, he says. But designing an app on Cloudflare might make it easier to adapt for other customer relations management systems, such as SugarCRM and Oracle, or financial and HR management system Workday (NYSE: WDAY).

“There is a tradeoff in terms of where you build your app,” Prince says.

Any app offered by a Cloudflare customer would benefit from the company’s Internet performance and security services, no matter where it was originally developed, Prince says. But applications developed on Cloudflare’s platform may be flexible enough to take full advantage of the company’s “edge network” of servers, he says.

While Cloudflare isn’t a cloud storage provider, it operates a global network of 115 data centers that contribute to the goal of speedy data delivery. The company can store copies of a client’s most popular Web pages in some of these edge network servers, so that the page can be dispatched to nearby website visitors more quickly than it would from the client’s more distant central data center, Prince says.

Cloudflare can also run app software from either the client’s data center or from Cloudflare’s edge network. These attributes could be valuable to users of mobile devices that may lack the processing power or battery life to handle certain apps, such as those using AI tools, Prince says. AI tasks, such as image processing, involve large computational demands within a short time-frame, he says.

“At the edge we have a large amount of processing power,” Prince says. On Cloudflare’s edge network, AI computational tasks could be tackled close to mobile end users, but not on their devices themselves, he says.

Cloudflare has raised $182 million in total fundraising since its founding in 2009, and currently has $100 million in the bank, Prince says. The company has taken steps toward an IPO. On June 1, Cloudflare announced it had hired former Symantec CFO Thomas Seifert as its chief financial officer, Bloomberg reported.

“We’re on the path to becoming a public company,” Prince says. “It’s probably at least a year away,” he added.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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