To score, to scar, to smear, to streak,
To smudge, to blur, to gouge, to scrape.
"Action painting," i.e.,
The painter gets to behave like time.
-- From "Time and Materials," by 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Haas

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is into its "action painting" mode of innovation again. Big G just released a "preview" version (not even the sincerely Googlish "beta" release yet) of a development toolkit for Web developers, dubbed the Google App Engine. The buzz in various developer communities around the 'net had centered around upcoming access to Google's Bigtable online storage system, and that's certainly a part of App Engine, but what they got was a lot more.

Who, what, when, where, why, and how
This is a full-on development environment for online services, complete with database storage, user authentication against standard Google accounts, and full use of the open-source Python programming language. All of the above runs on the company's massive infrastructure of servers and storage units, and the application programming interfaces (APIs) strive to make all the back-end complexity invisible to the developer.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, you're thinking of's (Nasdaq: AMZN) Web Services platform, which lets you set up virtual machines on Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), with access to the S3 storage service, the central SimpleDB database, and other company-managed tools. Where Amazon used to be the only game in town for this sort of Web-centric programming atop a massive computing infrastructure, developers now have a choice of solutions from several premier online giants. Google is only the latest in a rush to populate this space, including IBM's (NYSE: IBM) Blue Cloud and a small-business offering from Dell (Nasdaq: DELL).

Getting down and dirty
Unfortunately, Google has already exhausted the trial account allotment, so no hands-on experience for me. For now, App Engine is a virtual playground for the 10,000 developers who were lucky or quick enough to get a trial account. By contrast, Amazon's Web Services were launched back in 2002, and the company claims that more than 330,000 developers are now using its platforms.

There are probably a few bugs to work out of the Googly system before it's ready for production-level prime time, and the company is only providing access to the free but volume-limited starter account at the moment. Amazon won't give you anything for free (though its rates certainly beat setting up your own data center), so Google might attract a fair number of small businesses, Web upstarts, and hobby projects. There are plans to expand the language selection beyond just Python, and a spokesperson said that the project is intended as an alternative to the ubiquitous "LAMP stack" (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Python/Perl/PHP) of Web 2.0 technologies.

The Foolish takeaway
I'm a big fan of the "cloud computing" approach to setting up Web services, and I think that it will become a major force in the future of the Internet. It remains to be seen which of the early entrants will come out on the top of heap and start making real money from this quiet revolution in the meganerd set. I could also imagine other hopefuls tossing their hats in the ring, including Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL), Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), or Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO). They all have the necessary computing power dispersed among global machine networks, and they all should have a desire to get in on this game.

Despite the distant goal line, I feel like Google has a real shot at the title here. This kind of innovation-on-the-fly seems to come naturally to Googlers, and I expect the service to gain strength and build a good reputation quickly. It's another future feather in Mountain View's cap, and probably a decent moneymaker within two or three years as the premium accounts gain traction.

Smudge it on, G-man!

Further Foolishness:

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund is a Google shareholder and a Web-development enthusiast with EC2 and S3 accounts to his name, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure innovates the same way that Nick Nolte paints to "Whiter Shade of Pale" in New York Stories. Yeah, it's messy -- but it's a beautiful thing.