Fawning over Chatter and how SAP missed its chance

Chitter chatter over Salesforce.com Chatter is becoming almost hysterical. Is the hoopla worth the attention or is it a game changer?
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Ever since Salesforce.com announced Chatter, there's been a rising crescendo of what I can only describe as fawning and uncritical waffle. It's worrying.

As I've said before, Chatter is ESME with a few bells and whistles. Yet here we have everyone from Scoble to Mike Krigsman praising this as though it represents the second coming of IT. First up Scoble:

First, lots of people, including most of the Enterprise Irregulars who usually do a bang-up seemed to have missed the real news that Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, announced this week at the TechCrunch Real-Time Crunchup: that Salesforce is going after the whole company, not just the sales people.

Robert - puhlease. I resent that. That's way too simplistic a view. I called Scoble up on a time limited voice connection from the UK using a new SIM card that sucked my $$ faster than a Las Vegas slot machine. We didn't get to complete the call so what I say here is based only in part on that conversation. As I said to Scoble: 'Of course we got it. A year or more ago. And demo'd it in front of around 8,000 developers around the world. It is called ESME and is available as an open source project. I know a lot about that project as I was chief 'handwaver' and advocate both inside and outside the SAP community. So let's be clear - in concept - Chatter is NOT new.

Here's what ESME offers that Chatter doesn't:

  • It's open source. You can play with it, figure if it works for you or discard at zero cost.
  • It was built with scalability in mind. It's based on the Scala/Lift framework. That's what was used to help Twitter solve its problems a year or so ago when the Fail Whale was a common occurrence. Salesforce.com knows that if demand takes off, it has to solve the scaling issue very quickly. It reckons this will be done within a year. I'm suggesting that if they took on board the tenets of how ESME was built, they could do that inside 3-4 months.
  • ESME was built with business process in mind. It was built to demonstrate problem resolution inside day to day business processes. Chatter doesn't address that directly but indirectly. In conversations I had with Salesforce.com execs, they see it as a way to get customers to spend more on SFA or field service/call center apps that Salesforce sells. That's a narrow view and not aligned with the broader view pundits are ascribing to the service.

In comments to Scoble's post, Mike Krigsman punts the hush, hush, wink, wink idea that Salesforce.com already knows this could go deep into the enterprise. At one level he is absolutely correct. Yet SFdC handles a sliver of enterprise process capability:

The significance of Chatter is validating social computing in the enterprise, which you addressed in the comment from Jive's CEO. Those who think Chatter is a trivial Twitter clone are short-sighted in their view. Based on off-the-record discussion with senior execs in a position to know, I can assure you that what we see today in Chatter is merely the tip of the iceberg. Social computing now has the strategic backing from one of the enterprise software heavyweights. That's significant. By the way, if anyone doubts Salesforce's commitment to Chatter, look no further than the the fact it is a new "force" platform module. That's their bedrock platform.

[My emphasis added.]

Mike - this was validated a year ago. Admittedly it was early but it absolutely was validated by SAP and its immediate supporters at very large enterprises. Mike sat in on the same meetings I videod with Salesforce.com co-founder Parker Harris and (not videod) conversation with Brett Queener. Where is that over arching vision which he claims? Instead and including discussions with Steve Fisher who has to make this stuff work, I didn't hear any of that hyperbole. Instead, I saw a measured acceptance that Salesforce has much to do before it can aspire to the predictions being made.

Herein lies the danger. Salesforce.com may well have its hands on something of real value. The fact it is giving it away for existing users tells me it sees long term value in the embedding to the Force.com platform. But...it has to monetize along the way because in Benioff's words - this the next SFdC billion dollar opportunity. How?

When you parse that thought stream against business process you then need to examine what SFdC owns. The platform + SFS + field service + call center. Good though that is, it is a fraction of what makes a business tick or that which delivers breakthrough value unless you believe that sales based functions are at the forefront of delivered business value. I question that at multiple levels. Here's one to get you going: Sun owns Java. Money shot?

Couple that with the acknowledged fact SFdC is wrestling with managing and filtering the noise v value clutter in the real time stream (which ESME arguably solved early on albeit at a rudimentary but workable level) and you can see this represents a big set of technical problems. To its credit, Salesforce.com acknowledges those issues and knows it doesn't have a good answer. Today. That I respect. What I don't respect are pundits writing strategy for the company by proxy when they have little understanding of the technical impediments.

So - before all the handwavers go declaring victory think this: Salesforce.com is a credible and major SaaS vendor. It is NOT a credible enterprise process vendor. At least not yet and doesn't have a declred roadmap to get there under its monetizable ownership. It doesn't own all the process steps where something like Chatter will deliver value yet owns the platform that allows these services to emerge.

Back to SAP. It had the chance to take ESME and make its own almost from the get go. It was built with Netweaver integration in mind. It had/has the potential to reach millions of users - today. So here's the real difference.

Salesforce.com is brilliant at timing and packaging. For all the dopey naming of Chatter, Salesforce.com has the immediate mindshare that SAP could have owned a year or more ago. Does SAP get a second shot? Of course because ESME could be embedded in a matter of weeks/months while Salesforce.com tries to figure how it scales. SAP has millions of captive users where Salesforce has a fraction and more importantly, has only a tiny part of the total process view.

In the meantime - I invite readers to watch the video I recorded of Enterprise Advocates colleague Ray Wang speaking to SAP users earlier today in the UK. It puts much of this into perspective. (see top of post.)

Finally - and to repeat - I didn't get to finish the conversation with Scoble. I trust this post will help flesh out where I am coming from on this important discussion.

UPDATE: Scoble was kind enough to respond in comments, concentrating on the pricing issue. That's OK but doesn't address what enterprise will do - free or not. That's why process in this discussion is so important. It's way beyond what he calls 'features.'

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