Digging beneath Salesforce.com's platform hype

Even though the loyal fanbase of committed Salesforce.com users and partners at Dreamforce had to wait while Marc Benioff pitched his Force.com vision to the outside world, their needs remain front and center of Salesforce.com's product strategy.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

When Marc Benioff unveiled Salesforce.com's new Force.com branding for its former Apex platform on Monday, it came as something of an anti-climax for the 7,000 Dreamforce delegates crowded in the Moscone conference hall (picture by Dan Farber). Is that it, many wondered? A new name — the third in the past twelve months — for something that we already know all about?

Marc Benioff presents the new force.com brand at Dreamforce


To be fair, Benioff went on to unveil a new customizable user interface layer and programming tool that does move the platform on significantly. But that made it all the more bizarre to put so much emphasis on the name. By the end, attendees were left with a surreal, topsy-turvy feeling about the entire two-and-a-half-hour opening keynote. What felt like the least important announcement — the Force.com rebranding — had got prime billing in Marc Benioff's opening pitch. Next up came the moderately signficant UI-as-a-service and Visualforce announcement, fronted by company co-founder and senior VP of technology Parker Harris. It was left to chief marketing officer George Hu, almost two hours into the mammoth keynote session, to unveil what the true enthusiasts in the crowd had been waiting for — the new features coming out in the forthcoming Winter '08 release of the Salesforce.com application. These were the announcements for which they unleashed huge, relieved ripples of spontaneous applause.

The root cause of the disparity stems from Marc Benioff's need to address two distinct audiences in his Dreamforce keynotes. The audience in the hall is the loyal fanbase of committed Salesforce.com users and partners. They want to learn the next evolution of the core Salesforce.com application, and while they like the platform story, they could take it or leave it so long as the application itself continues to evolve to serve their needs.

Outside of the hall, there's a much bigger audience that Benioff has to reach out to: an audience of thoughtleaders, media and analysts, investors, bloggers, prospects and rivals. For this audience, the platform vision is paramount because it builds up his company into much more than merely another CRM vendor. In the context of that wider strategic objective, the sole purpose of this year's Dreamforce keynote was to get the Force.com branding out, and lodge it firmly in the minds of all and sundry as the foundation of a new generation of Internet-delivered business computing. Until that had been done, the audience in the hall would have to wait. They weren't going anywhere, anyway.

The other advantage of getting the world outside to focus on the platform message is that it distracts them from scrutinizing the core application, which becomes a given in their minds. Nobody at Salesforce.com is allowed to become similarly distracted — Benioff knows very well that its now 900,000+ users are there primarily because of the appeal of the core application. In an interview in January of last year, he described The duality of AppExchange (AppExchange then being the name for what subsequently became Apex and is now known as Force.com):

"... not forgetting we’re still in the CRM business, so whatever we do with AppExchange has to make our core product better.

"We're not just a development platform, we're not just doing data management generically, we have to live the duality that we are still a killer CRM app. And that [AppExchange] is making our app fundamentally better. It may pull us in new directions, but we have to remember that [duality]."

This is something that partners such as Coda — which on Monday revealed it's developing an ERP application on the force.com platform — would do well to bear in mind. Force.com exists because users of the Salesforce.com application want to be able to customize the user interface and add functionality of their own. Providing a platform on which partners can build entirely new applications will always be a secondary objective; perhaps one day on a par with the first, but never to the extent that Salesforce.com's own bread-and-butter application offerings suffer. If you doubt me, look at the history of Microsoft Office and its rivals.

One of the most interesting aspects of the evolution of the Salesforce.com application that often gets overlooked with all the focus on the platform vision is the extent to which it is becoming a formidable case study in the use of Web 2.0 for product management. Many of the new features slated for the Winter '08 release have been trailed on the IdeaExchange, where Salesforce.com customers, partners and prospects can post product suggestions and then comment and vote on them. Hu frequently referenced the role that IdeaExchange had played in prioritizing new features that have been built into Winter '08, and it was notable that several of the most warmly-applauded new features — including in-line editing and floating column headers — were suggestions that had garnered high ratings on Idea Exchange. "When we deliver on this, we know this is going to sell, becase you guys have asked us for it," said Hu at one point, and as a CMO, he's well aware how valuable that kind of foreknowledge can be.

Now Salesforce.com is going to roll out that same collaborative capability to its customers, making the Idea Exchange platform something they can adopt for use either internally within their own organizations or externally to promote similar conversations with their customers. To the wider world, this might look like leaping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon, but to loyal Salesforce.com users in sales and marketing functions, it just adds a powerful (not to mention trendy) new way to interact with prospects and customers.

Similarly, the introduction of content management tools should be assessed from the point of view of the existing sales and marketing user base. It was interesting to hear more applause when Hu showed the ability to preview documents such as Powerpoint slidedecks without having to download them first. Saving time when sharing and accessing information is a need keenly felt within sales and marketing. Of course this need exists in other departments too, but there's no point in adding functionality to Salesforce.com's application suite if it won't fly first among the core user base. Get it established there, and it then has the opportunity to extend into other departments. That's where the vision leads. But everything you see emerging out of Salesforce.com's product development today is grounded in the reality of where Salesforce.com's current user base is at.

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