SAP's A1S and Salesforce.com's Force.com: Brinkmanship at Its Best

It's going to a hard week for Salesforce.com and Marc Benioff.

It's going to a hard week for Salesforce.com and Marc Benioff. If the Wall St. Journal's scoop is true (probably is, chances are it was "leaked" to the Journal by Salesforce itself), then whatever thunder Marc was hoping to gather by making his usual blockbuster announcement ("the single most exciting technology that I've worked on in my career", quoth Marc to Reuters) is going to be stolen by SAP's A1S announcement later in the week.

Because if anything qualifies as "the most exciting technology" that anyone has worked on in their career, it's A1S that hits the high mark (pun intended), not Salesforce.com's reported latest efforts. A1S represents nothing more than the confluence of four major trends in the industry, and to say it is ambitious is the understatement of the year. A1S is an ERP product that combines model-based development, software-as-a-service deployment, and service-oriented architecture integration, all slated for the red-hot mid-market. That's not a bad list for a single product launch.

It's a major bet for SAP, one that has been likened to the bet SAP made in the early 1990s when it switched from its mainframe-based R/2 to client/server-based R/3. There's lots of reasons why success for A1S will be a challenge (including an important reason I mentioned in a obscure, off-shore publication you probably have never heard of), but it has a lot going for it. Based on a version I was shown at SAP's user conference last April, A1S will be a highly compelling product for a large segment of the mid-market. One can safely assume it has only improved since them.

At a minimum, the scope and ambition of what SAP is trying to accomplish with A1S is paradigm-shattering, and represents a new vision of what the mid-market can and should expect from the growing number of vendors courting the mid-market as the promised land of future growth and profits. There are lots of examples of how individual pieces of A1S are already in the market: on demand enterprise software is already there, as is modeling and SOA-based environments. But no one has yet pulled them all under a single product offering, and, if SAP is successful with A1S, everyone will be forced to follow their lead, or start looking irrelevant pretty quickly.

Meanwhile, according to the Wall Street Journal, Salesforce.com's "most exciting" announcement will be a rebranding of a now five year old effort to become a platform (the Journal article says the effort started in 2003, when Sforce was launched, but those efforts actually date back at least an additional year, if not two.) Salesforce will pull together its somewhat confusing Apex and AppExchange brands under the Force.com umbrella, and otherwise tidy up the messaging a bit. It will also launch a visual editing tool that is designed to free developers from using the Salesforce.com UI for their applications. Now I'm mighty biased against visual editing tools being placed in the "most exciting" announcement category, mostly because the apex (pun intended) in the development of visual editing tools took place somewhere in the latter part of the last century. Maybe there will be something in this new product, called VisualForce, that will blow someone's socks off. But the bar is basically set impossibly high on that account.

So, a new UI tool and the nth rebranding of Salesforce.com's platform efforts vs. a stunningly ambitious attempt to rewrite the rules of the game in the mid-market ERP industry. Gotta hand it to SAP, which isn't necessarily known for its marketing brinkmanship: in a week of dueling blockbuster announcements, SAP will be showing the master of hype how to do it right. It's gonna be a fun week.

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