Once you get past the interviews with Hilary Clinton, Will.i.am, Al Gore, The Beach Boys and Bruno Mars, you realise there was a tech conference in San Francisco.

The Salesforce annual show (more entertainment than trade) grows increasingly spectacular by the year. This year the star acts proved very useful as without them it would have been difficult to fill 4 days with what were only a few major announcements. This should not be seen as a criticism. Keeping the number of announcements small and trailing them well in advance meant that by the time Salesforce CEO and co-founder Marc Benioff took to the stage the audience had a good understanding of the latest products. This year’s messaging compared to last year’s announcement of Salesforce1, benefitted from being short, clear and repeated across the event.

The big reveal was Salesforce’s Analytics Cloud, “Wave” Behind that came the announcement of Salesforce Lightning, a new UI framework. Both were ahead of a few smaller items such as a partnership with Microsoft. The latter comes just after the previous week’s announcement at Adobe MAX of Adobe’s new relationship with Microsoft. This was a further indicator of Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella’s strategy of reaching out to other vendors and forming partnerships where it clearly makes sense to do so.

Within the enormity of Dreamforce there was the Developer Zone which was perhaps one of the best developer focused areas of any conference. Unlike the trade show where stands were manned by pay-by-the-hour staff that just hand out free swag, the Developer Zone was populated by Managing Directors, COOs, strategy heads, senior technologists and real developers. There were some great workshop areas where attendees could get hands on with Internet of Things and expert advice on User Experience. For any developers attending the conference they could have spent the entire event in the Developer Zone and would probably have been all the better for it.

Dreamforce developer highlights

For developers the big news was Salesforce Lightning, a user interface framework to be used in the development of Salesforce1 apps. Much of the technology is a re-packaging of existing capabilities but the result will boost developer productivity while helping them to create highly usable interfaces.

The Lightning framework operates in two distinct ways. The first allows developers to very easily add pre-built visual components to their apps. The second is that developers can build their own components, which can then be re-used within their organisation or made available to others through the AppExchange. This latter option also provides developers with a potential revenue stream.

A new visual builder tool is also available and Salesforce sees a future where some of this development work is done by those without developer skills. This recognises the continuing trend within the vendor community to lower the barrier to development by delivering tools that allow those with non-traditional development skills to be able to easily and quickly configure application functionality. We increasingly hear this as enabling the “Citizen Developers”.

Heroku DX which was actually announced last month also received its big public unveiling. DX is a collection of 3 new features:

  • Heroku Button: This enables a Heroku project to be quickly and easily installed by the simple click of a button. A developer can enter a few set-up options and have the product up and running within their own Heroku account within moments. From there they can customise it as required. Heroku is a very popular Platform as a Service (PaaS) product, but has historically been very technical to work with in the use of command line code instructions and constructs. Competitors have benefitted from having features that can be easily set-up, even by non-developers. This has been especially prevalent around building cloud backends. It is no surprise therefore that Salesforce has now moved to add its own simplification process by providing a mobile backend template which can be installed via a Heroku Button.
  • Heroku Dashboard: An all new dashboard that provides developers with more detailed metrics about the services they have running. Metrics include response times, CPU and request data, all of which can help developers to identify potential performance problems/ bottlenecks, or when services need to have their resources increased. Unlike some competing services, the dashboard does not go as far as to drill down into lines of code that may be causing the issues.
  • Postgres DbX: Heroku uses Postgres as a Database as a Service offering and DbX brings some news features. There is a new selection of pricing plans offering increased performance. These include a new Premium plan that adds encryption for stored data which will be beneficial to security conscious enterprise customers. There is also analytics, similar to the new dashboard, but providing detailed performance data. In some ways this is better than the dashboard as it surfaces actual SQL queries, helping developers to improve database performance.

These are all very welcome additions and it’s great to see Salesforce investing in Heroku. The latest Heroku announcements follow on from Heroku Connect, announced last year, which enables applications built on Heroku to integrate easily with the core Salesforce platform. Salesforce recommends this approach to developers wanting to communicate with Salesforce data from custom apps. This is specifically because Heroku can handle a greater number of requests than the native API.

Despite the new features the overall Heroku offering is still behind its major competitors in terms of capabilities. So far this has not slowed its growth, mainly because developers have liked the (open source) services the Heroku platform offers and fear vendor lock-in with the likes of Microsoft and Google.

Great development messages, but are they being heard?

Where Salesforce is struggling is in messaging to developers, especially those wanting remote access to the Salesforce platform. An example of this was in talking with many of the developers in the Internet of Things (IoT) area of the Developer Zone. IoT is a perfect use case for using Heroku, however the companies that we spoke to were all communicating directly with the core Salesforce platform.

To address this there was the announcement of new templates called Heroku CX Patterns which provide developers with example architectures for common app use cases. For example, the Nibs sample mobile app experience, demonstrates how an application can utilise Salesforce1 on the admin side while creating a custom mobile experience accessing the same data in Salesforce via Heroku. These patterns are very welcome and we met developers at Dreamforce eager for these types of architectural guidance helps, but who have been confused so far by Salesforce’s documentation.

A new developer website was announced at Dreamforce called Trailhead with the ambition of providing training for developers, but the focus of this is Force.com. If Salesforce does not want to miss out on a lot of cloud based development, especially within enterprise, or risk confusing developers unnecessarily, then the company needs to start promoting the Heroku story much more heavily.

Right strategy, now needs some better marketing

Dreamforce was a successful event for Salesforce and certainly enjoyable for the many fortunate to attend. For the development community the Salesforce story is a good one and the company has launched a number of great additions over the last 12 months including those discussed here and others such as its wearables SDK. The team driving this innovation is clearly investing in smart ways and delivering better products and services for developers. They just need to do a lot more to join the dots for developers. Too many are still unclear about where different components play a part in their overall development strategy.

New releases such as the Heroku CX Patterns are a great way to address this but a developer still needs to know where to start looking in order to find such help. From speaking with developers at Dreamforce it’s clear that the re-launched developer website has not addressed this and there are still complaints about confusion within the Salesforce developer resources. This was something that was also flagged in the User Experience area of the Developer Zone where a large wall space was dedicated to customer feedback (kudos to Salesforce doing this).

If Salesforce can get the messaging right and continue to invest in services such as Heroku then it could have the kind of success in cloud development that it has had and continues to enjoy within the Software-as-a-Service market. Now that would be something worthy of its own celebrity status.