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Justin Garten, founder of a Web startup called Postful, which converts e-mails into physically mailed letters, says that by using Amazon Web Services, he was able to keep his company much smaller than it would have been otherwise. Garten also likes the ability to pick and choose what services his company gets from Amazon. “Where Amazon has made sense for us, we’ve used it, and where it hasn’t made sense for us, we’ve built our own server structures,” he says.

Google, making characteristic use of its vast resources, is trying to do Amazon one better: App Engine doesn’t even start charging money until an application uses more than 500 megabytes of storage or serves more than five million page views a month. The premium version of the service isn’t yet available to developers, but Tom Stocky, a Google product manager, says the company hopes that only mature applications will need it. “Once you get to where you hit the quota, you’ve hopefully started making money,” he says.

And yet while App Engine is highly accommodating in its pricing, it is designed not to allow à la carte use of features, as Amazon Web Services does. One cannot, for instance, easily use App Engine solely for storage. Instead, the system comes as a complete package.

Stocky says that App Engine’s constraints weren’t imposed just to serve Google’s business plan–although that’s something they certainly do. They also, he says, help applications enjoy the same efficiencies that Google does. Take storage. App Engine uses Google’s proprietary database system, which is different from the systems that many developers are familiar with, such as MySQL. Google’s system does not allow typical data storage commands that the company says slow applications down when large numbers of users try to call up data.

Software developer Brit Gardner, cofounder of Dallas-based Figaro Interactive, tested App Engine’s capabilities by beginning work on a demo application soon after the service came out. Though he didn’t know Python, the programming language App Engine requires, he says he was able to build his application in the space of a few days. Gardner says that he sees App Engine as significantly different from Amazon Web Services, in that it’s a framework for application development, rather than merely a place to rent processing and storage ­capacity. He says that his site isn’t close to hitting Google’s page-view and storage limits, and he doubts that many other sites will be, either, since there are a lot of sites out there and only so many users.

Why would Google give so much away for free? Product manager Pete Koomen says, “We are trying to move the Web forward as a platform. More applications means more users.” Indeed, as with blogging, if it’s quick and inexpensive for people to set up Web applications, more people are likely to take the plunge, bringing with them the benefits (and troubles) of a rich and crowded field.

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Credit: Harry Campbell

Tagged: Computing, Web, Google, web browser, Web apps, App Engine

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