Apple Takes a Bite Into Enterprise CRM
Are we witnessing the dawn of a new CRM platform?
As the preferred medium for CRM continues to evolve -- from pen and paper to desktop computers to laptops to mobile phones -- Apple yesterday announced the release of a software development kit (SDK) for its iPhone smartphones. The SDK -- think of it as a limited playbook of Apple's proprietary programming code -- allows developers of CRM and other software to create applications customized specifically for the iPhone, and reaching beyond the existing access to Web-based information provided by the iPhone's built-in Safari Web browser.
As part of the announcement, made yesterday at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., and sharing the spotlight cast on Apple's move to open the iPhone software to outside developers, Salesforce.com representatives unveiled a demo version of an application built expressly for the iPhone -- but don't expect to be downloading a Salesforce.com/iPhone offering right away. Apple executives explained that all developers at the event had just two weeks to put together the demos on display. According to an email statement from Salesforce.com, the software-as-a-service business technology vendor says it "is not releasing any dates at this time" for when its iPhone-native application might be released to the public.
According to information released by Apple at the event, the plan is for iPhone applications to be distributed via downloads from a new online store similar to Apple's iTunes -- to be known as the App Store -- with software developers keeping 70 percent of whatever they decide to charge for their applications. (Apple will pocket the remaining 30 percent for hosting, marketing, and distribution.) For developers, there's no charge beyond the $99 fee for the SDK itself -- and they can choose to offer their applications to users for free.
The finished edition of Apple's iPhone SDK is not out yet, however -- the one unveiled yesterday, according to the company, was merely a beta version, which makes the same true of all the applications that were on display, including Salesforce.com's. The full version of the SDK is slated for release in June -- which is also the earliest date for commercial availability of applications built using these new tools.
Salesforce.com's demonstration of a program for tracking contacts and sales leads gave attendees a feel for how applications could possibly look when the final product is ready for general consumption. What attendees (and those who watched the video archive at www.apple.com) saw could change, however: Salesforce.com Vice President of Developer Marketing Adam Gross says the company's efforts with iPhone-native applications are still in the research-and-development stage. "A lot of the details around the iPhone and the specific capabilities are still under evaluation." he adds. "We're lucky enough to be an early partner with Apple in an evaluation capacity of the SDK -- and that's something that is going to continue."
Regardless of the functionality in Saleforce.com's market-ready iPhone application -- and regardless of the timing of its eventual release -- questions remain about just how "offline" and "native" users will truly be when the application does become generally available. "This sounds like a fat client something might run on the iPhone, but where will the data come from?" asks Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal at CRM consultancy Beagle Research Group. "The storage on the [iPhone] isn't sufficient to cut the tie to the Internet unless what we're really talking about is a detached client that calls home when a connection is available. If the latter is the case, it is technology Salesforce.com has had for awhile and it is adapting it to the iPhone's [operating system]."
While declining to detail the scope of Salesforce.com's potential offerings on the iPhone, Gross responds that it's not really a choice of either offline or online. "We don't really see it as an either/or," he explains. "What we and other developers are looking for with the SDK is the ability to go outside of the [Web] browser for certain circumstances -- the main one for us is ability to access offline data."
Chuck Dietrich, vice president of Salesforce.com's mobile division was quoted by InternetNews.com saying that "we're bringing over 63,000 platform applications to the iPhone." While that may be an end goal for Salesforce.com, company executives and analysts alike both agree that the full complement of programs currently available on Salesforce.com's Force.com platform will not be immediately available on the iPhone.
"We have 63,000 customer applications written on the Force.com platform today," Gross says. "That's really separate from what we have announced with Apple and the work we're doing around the iPhone." Pombriant agrees, saying that "it strikes me that this is potential rather than reality at the moment."
Apple is dangling another long-awaited carrot in front of enterprise users: Starting in June, Apple will support Microsoft's ActiveSync protocol, allowing the iPhone to work directly with corporate servers running Microsoft's popular Exchange -- a move designed to entice users away from rival BlackBerry devices, which have traditionally led the enterprise market for handheld devices. Several CRM software providers already have offerings -- such as NetSuite's SuitePhone -- that can be accessed using mobile phones (including the iPhone) via a Web browser. Unlike the new, native applications designed to run directly on the iPhone, those earlier incarnations provide support for Apple's Safari Web browser, used on both the iPhone and on Apple's Macintosh operating system.
At the SAP CRM 2008 conference earlier this week, SAP unveiled SAP CRM 2007's capability to be accessed via the iPhone -- the program even had the same look and feel as the typical iPhone menu. Bob Stutz, senior vice president and general manager for SAP's CRM global strategy and product development, told the crowd at the time that SAP CRM 2007 can be accessed via any Web-enabled mobile device or smartphone, not just the iPhone. "We should not be tied to an office," Stutz said. "We don't need a computer anymore."
It remains to be seen if the Apple's iPhone can push ahead of the BlackBerry and other smartphones. Pombriant explains that what Apple is offering is not necessarily new, and doesn't mean that other businesses will immediately switch all its personnel to the iPhone. "I don't think it's the next step, but more of a good thing to have for some people," he says. "I would expect [Salesforce.com] to provide similar support for [BlackBerrys] -- the BlackBerry is the corporate de facto standard for PDAs and I can't imagine not covering that base."
UPDATE: On March 12, Apple announced that, in the first four days following the launch event, the beta version of its iPhone SDK was downloaded by more than 100,000 developers, including CRM industry vendors such as Intuit (maker of QuickBooks) and NetSuite.
"The iPhone SDK gives us the tools we need to create powerful iPhone applications and is an important part of our overall mobile strategy," said Rick Jensen, senior vice president, Small Business Group at Intuit, in a statement released by Apple. The iPhone, he added, "expands the ways our customers can solve key financial tasks wherever they might be."
"Apple's tools have provided our development team the flexibility to make the SuitePhone application richer and deeper," said Luke Braud, vice president of software development for NetSuite, in the same Apple statement. Braud promised the iPhone efforts would allow NetSuite "to give every iPhone customer access to their critical business data anytime, anywhere."
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