Salesforce Chatter: Something to talk about

Salesforce Chatter: Something to talk about

Summary: My take on Salesforce.com's new enterprise-level social networking platform, called Chatter, which was inspired by Twitter and Facebook.

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In a major update to its product set, Salesforce.com introduced an enterprise-level social networking platform, called Chatter, which was inspired by Twitter and Facebook. I think the announcement is exciting, but the picture is not entirely perfect.

Here are some first impressions, based on conversations with Salesforce executives, independent analysts, and bloggers. I plan to follow up with the company's customers to gain a more complete view of this platform.

On the surface, Chatter seems rather unexciting. After all, enterprise social computing products aren't new; for example, an enterprise Twitter-style application called ESME, which was created by developers connected with SAP, has been around for over a year.

Chatter sports some interesting features, such as the ability of Force.com applications to send status messages into the Twitter-like stream. (For an excellent breakdown of Chatter's features, take a look at Dion Hinchcliffe's ZDNet post on this topic.) However, the import of this announcement has nothing to do with features; it arises from Salesforce's level of visibility and its commitment to social computing.

When a company of Salesforce's size and stature seriously gets behind a particular technology or market, it brings credibility and a halo to everyone in that ecosystem. In this case, Salesforce appears to be making a substantive, long-term commitment of resources and marketing capital to the social computing and Enterprise 2.0 domains.

Of course, an announcement does not carry the weight of shipping real product to customer, so the jury of reality has yet to reach a verdict. With that in mind, I asked Brett Queener, Senior Vice President of products, to describe the company's level of commitment to Chatter. His comments are unequivocal:

Chatter changes the game by creating a perfect marriage between cloud computing and social computing. We are hugely committed to chatter and what we previewed at Dreamforce is only a small glimpse of what we plan to deliver over the years.

Chatter will receive the same level of focus, investment, and commitment as all of our other clouds - i.e. sales cloud, service cloud, and custom cloud. Importantly, Chatter is an entirely new layer of our underlying platform architecture, which all of our customers, partners, and developers can leverage to build their own social applications. They too can now have all of their users, content, and applications join the conversation.

Although Salesforce is hardly the first company to attempt draw direct connections between social networking and enterprise computing, the strategic weight they bring to this space is meaningful.

THE PROJECT FAILURES ANALYSIS

Salesforce is certainly not the first company to consider how social networking intersects with the enterprise. However, the company's size and commitment will help CIOs gain comfort with the entire notion of a "social enterprise."

Bob Warfield, CEO of social CRM vendor Helpstream, agrees with this assessment:

There are some great things about the Chatter announcement. If nothing else, it cements Social as must-have and not just nice-to-experiment-with. It's very cool that it will be part of the platform, so that other things built on the platform can be tied into it. If Sharepoint can have a $7B ecosystem associated with it, I don't know why Salesforce can't have a Social Ecosystem too.

On the other hand, we should be cautious about becoming overly excited about a new product that hasn't even shipped. As we all know, vision is easier than execution. Bob Warfield offers a skeptical perspective:

It's a reasonably well executed demo. There's nothing breakthrough. There's even a lot of doubt about whether it is on par with state of the art for Social. Most everyone I talked to said, "Definitely not, at least 18 months behind."

I didn't forget to say "reasonably well executed product," the word "demo" was there advisedly.  There's no announced shipping date, just Calendar 2010. When it's put that way, you can usually assume the worst--December 2010?  Q4 anyway? And when you start with a baseline that is not state of the art, does that mean it isn't shipping now because they're going to add a bunch to it, or does that mean it'll be the same product and hence even further behind the curve?

Ray Wang, analyst and partner at the Altimeter Group, adds additional context for the announcement:

Chatter validates the Enterprise 2.0 market but will test Salesforce.com's ability to keep up with offerings from pure play vendors such as Jive and Lithium. Even established collaboration vendors IBM/Lotus and Microsoft have potentially competitive products in the pipeline. These vendors are investing more resources, and in some cases have more experience in this market, than Salesforce.com. However, we can expect Salesforce.com's credibility among enterprise buyers to give Chatter a good boost as a collaboration cloud.

My take. Only time will reveal Salesforce.com's true commitment to Chatter as a platform. I do think this is an important move, but ultimately Salesforce will invest based on customer interest and demand. Parker Harris, Salesforce.com's co-founder, made this clear during a conversation with several bloggers, including myself. (Fellow ZDNet blogger, Dennis Howlett, videotaped a particularly interesting part of that conversation.)

Regardless of where Salesforce decides to take Chatter, the announcement demonstrates that social computing in the enterprise has started to approach a tipping point, which I think is great.

Topics: Collaboration, Enterprise Software, Social Enterprise

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