September 18, 2007
Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine
Salesforce.com's Soapbox Is the Platform
SAN FRANCISCO -- Today at Dreamforce, Salesforce.com's annual user conference, company chairman and chief executive officer Marc Benioff dropped a truckload of announcements on an audience of more than 7,000 attendees. While the usual assortment of functionality upgrades were on display, major pieces of news carried the day. Chief among these was the official unveiling of Force.com, a secure on-demand platform that unites database, workflow, integration, user interface, and application exchange with the ability to create, modify, and deploy multiple concurrent applications to small businesses and large enterprises.
Built upon the company's Apex design language, Force.com allows each user's full set of Salesforce.com applications to run in the same instance -- sharing a common security model, data structure, and user interface. This lets user companies focus on what their applications do instead of the software and infrastructure required to run them, according to Salesforce.com. Components of Force.com include:
- Force.com Database: Provides the ability to create any database-as-a-service, including fine-grain data security and built-in data-history tracking for regulatory compliance;
- Force.com Builder: Delivers a metadata-driven application development model that allows applications to be defined as declarative "blueprints," with no code required;
- Apex Code: Introduces the ability to write code that runs on Salesforce.com servers. This language is intended to make possible the development of a new class of applications and features deployed entirely on demand;
- Force.com Analytics: Includes the same analytic functionality found in Salesforce CRM applications. This allows users to incorporate dashboards and analytics from Salesforce.com directly into their applications, using interactive visualizations of customer data and the ability to link dashboards together;
- Force.com Web Services API: Makes it possible to access and manage in a single request multiple complex data relationships -- such as a set of information about an account, all the products that account has bought, and all of the contacts related to that account; and
- Performance and Scalability: Extends to any application built and run on the Force.com platform benefits from what the company calls "the scalability, reliability, and availability of Salesforce.com's industry-leading service."
The company also made an additional announcement related to Force.com -- one notable enough for its own segment of the presentation: Visualforce, which is designed to allow users to exert a greater degree of customization upon Apex-built applications than ever before, and enable those applications to be deployed to any browser-based device. Visualforce is a page-based model built on standard Web technologies (including HTML, AJAX, and Flex), combined with a component library and controllers for crafting new interactions. More than 50 standard Salesforce user interface elements have been componentized for use with Visualforce, according to the company; the new logic controllers let customers define and design new behaviors, including wizards and workflows that reach across multiple pages and applications.
Salesforce.com cofounder Parker Harris joined Benioff onstage for the discussion of Visualforce, which included live demonstrations of applications deployed to a tablet PC and an iPhone, with assurances that they would also run on RIM BlackBerry devices, Palm Treos, point-of-sale terminals and kiosks, and handheld scanners. Benioff, calling Visualforce "the most important breakthrough we've ever made," defined it for the crowd as "user-interface-as-a-service."
Another major debut at Dreamforce's opening was Salesforce Ideas. This is the vendor's existing IdeaExchange writ large and rolled out for use by Salesforce.com customers in their own customer-facing Web presences, similar to Dell's Salesforce.com-powered IdeaStorm. Salesforce.com is labeling Salesforce Ideas as "innovation management" by the company, which ties in well with its new content management module, Salesforce Content.
Benioff was practically giddy while describing the new capabilities his company was rolling out, and the technology behind them. "The platform feels like a start-up again; it feels like creating a new model again," he said at the morning keynote. However, his always-impressive onstage enthusiasm was tempered with more sober assessments at an executive briefing later in the day. Asked if the platform represented a fundamental change in the way his company approached the market, one that might require a name change, he stated that Salesforce.com had tremendous brand equity, and described what most customers wanted from it. Repeating an audience member's figure that some 85 percent of Salesforce.com customers were primarily using CRM and sales force automation functions, Benioff said: "This is our core market, and we will continue to innovate for them. It doesn't have to be an either-or situation."
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