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App Creators Talk App Engine at Google Lunch

Google treated a group of reporters to lunch last Friday in its San Francisco offices (sushi and pizza -- yum!), and we got to meet some happy users of the App Engine and chat with the Google team behind it.

Google's App Engine is a suite of the tools and services for building and scaling Web apps on the company's infrastructure. Applications developed using the App Engine Software Development Kit (SDK) can be uploaded and hosted by Google, and those apps can then utilize Google's bandwidth and computing power. That's a big selling point, Google argues, given Big G's vast, road-tested infrastructure, which is also hosting its own apps.

The App Engine went GA in May 2008, after lots of tire kicking by 10,000 invitation-only beta users. At first, the only runtime environment was Python, but the company soon added a Java runtime and a bunch of other goodies to appeal to a range of developers. A new Business version was unveiled last month, and this week the company released the App Engine SDK 1.3.8 with new admin tools and performance enhancements.

Among the vendors at the meeting was Fred Cheng, founder of San Francisco-based startup Simperium, who demoed his company's Simplenote app. Think of this app as a simpler Evernote, emphasizing the ability to keep text-based notes, lists, etc., and access them from a desktop, a tablet, a mobile device or the Web.

Simplenote was developed a year ago as an iPhone app written in Python. When user feedback led the company to consider expanding the scope of the app to other devices, it used App Engine to create a low-cost, scalable backend. Simplenote started the year with 10,000 users, Cheng said, but now claims nearly 200,000 users today.

"We chose App Engine because we didn't want to worry about system administration or scaling," Cheng said. "We heard at one point that Demi Moore tweeted about us, and she has more than three million followers. That day was a crazy day, but we never worried about the servers going down."

Another App Engine user, Dan Murray, co-founder and managing director of WebFilings, demoed his Los Alto, California/Ames, Iowa-based company's cloud-based financial reporting solution. WebFilings looks to be first to market with an app that streamlines the cumbersome, manual process that companies currently go through to draft and file Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) reports.

"With every platform, you run into issues," Murray said. "That's just inevitable. But every single time we had an issue, the Google people were on it within a matter of minutes."

Also attending was Tihomir Bajic, a software developer at Rypple, a Toronto/San Francisco-based startup with an enterprise social networking application, a Twitter-like feedback generator for companies. Rypple used the Google Web Tools (GWT) to build the app's front end, but then hosted it on the Rackspace cloud. They also used Google analytics and Google AdWords in the application.

"For GWT there's an existing community of developers," Bajic said, "outside and inside the company, who are very active and contribute back the code and share what they learn with one another."

Rypple used the App Engine for prototyping, Bajic said, but went initially with Rackspace to allay security fears of some customers. But he said that his company is "closely monitoring" developments, and expects Google to resolve these concerns, soon.

I'm one of the few reporters I know who actually likes product demos (or admits it, anyway), and I thought each of these apps were pretty cool in their own way. But I'm not in the minority when it comes to speculating on exactly what Google, a search company that makes money on advertising, has been up to with App Engine. None of us speculators has come closer to the mark in my opinion than Gartner analyst Yefim Natis. I talked with him almost exactly a year ago about the App Engine and how Google is using it.

"Google is an ambitious vendor," he told me. "They have Android, which is going to compete with Windows sooner or later, and they know that the operating system is only the bottom of the stack. They want to be able eventually to compete with the whole stack for the mass market customers…. I don't think they're aiming at large enterprises. They are aiming at small and medium businesses, at least in the beginning. I don't think they are investing in the kinds of things high-end enterprises care about…. But they understand that they need to get into the layers above the operating system, and just offering applications is not enough for their ambitions. In order to be a complete solution provider, they have to do more. So, to have an application platform as a service is actually critical."

He added: "The platform is where the commitments are made, and Google knows this. They are building not for on-premises. That's not their world. They are building it for the cloud. But they have a lot to learn. Being an enterprise player takes a lot of time to learn."

But Kevin Gibbs, the originator of the App Engine project, technical lead, and all around vision guy, sees a different motive behind Google's efforts to build a developer ecosystem: "Our goal is to help developers to make the Web better," Gibbs told us. "I'm excited to hear about a developer who uses any tool we offer. App Engine is a great product, but it can't do everything yet. I don't know if it ever will. But if any part of what Google is doing is helping the developers, then we're winning, we're moving the Web forward, we're making the experience of the Internet better."

Posted by John K. Waters on October 15, 2010