Five questions for Salesforce.com at Dreamforce

The company's burgeoning array of products and 'social enterprise' strategy will be on display

Salesforce.com has grown into a company much broader in scope than its name would suggest, having moved well beyond its roots in on-demand CRM (customer relationship management) software.

During next week's Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, Salesforce.com is planning to give attendees the full rundown on how it can be a central player in their companies' IT strategies and help them "touch the social enterprise," as the show's homepage puts it.

While Salesforce.com recently abandoned its bid to trademark the phrase "social enterprise," those words will still define its core strategy of combining an array of business applications with social networking tools in order to bring together customers, partners and employees.

Here's a look at some key questions the company may look to answer at Dreamforce, which starts Tuesday.

Is the social enterprise strategy starting to click?

A survey of Salesforce.com customers released this week by consulting firm Bluewolf found that only 24 percent were currently "working on becoming social."

Another 18 percent said "social is important for some businesses, but not for us" and a total of 27 percent said they either weren't familiar with it, think it's a fad, or believe it's important but don't know how to proceed.

The survey also found that adoption of Salesforce.com's Chatter social collaboration tool, which provides messaging and document sharing, remains "cold," despite the fact that it was launched more than two years ago and is available in a free version.

All of that suggests that Salesforce.com has some more work in store convincing and educating customers on its vision.

Still, it's only one survey, and Salesforce.com has some revealing figures of its own on tap.

Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff said last month that he would discuss at Dreamforce how many customers have signed Social Enterprise License Agreements, a new offering announced last year that provides fixed-fee access to a wide range of the company's products, from CRM to application development tools.

Benioff's clear goal here is to show concrete proof that customers are making Salesforce.com a strategic element of their IT strategies.

Showgoers will be "impressed" by Salesforce.com's progress with SELAs, according to Benioff.

Platform cohesion or confusion?

Salesforce.com has for years sought to recast itself as a full-blown application development platform provider, exposing its underlying Force.com stack to partners and customers for building new products and extensions. More recently, and perhaps in response to or recognition of the growing age of Force.com's technology, it purchased Ruby application platform vendor Heroku, which has also added support for Java.

Salesforce.com has never made it entirely clear for developers of when each platform makes more sense to use, said Forrester Research analyst China Martens.

In addition, Salesforce.com has seemed to keep Heroku at arms-length from a marketing perspective. The company still has its own website, which features a much different look and feel from Salesforce.com's own. In fact, it's difficult to immediately discern that Salesforce.com now owns the vendor, based on Heroku's homepage.

Nor has Salesforce.com made overt moves to bring together the two platforms on a technical level.

Some sense of where it's all going could come at Dreamforce, however, during a keynote by Salesforce.com co-founder and executive vice president Parker Harris.

Are there too many irons in the fire?

Harris' talk is just one of a slew of product keynotes slated for Dreamforce. Others will cover the company's Sales Cloud, Service Cloud, Marketing Cloud, Work.com HR software, Chatter and the Data.com business data service.

Plenty of live customers from big-name companies as well as Salesforce.com executives and marketing staffers will deliver the goods, which suggests that all of the company's product lines have gained some level of maturity.

But the fact that Salesforce.com had to break out the topics into all those sessions also speaks to the growing complexity of its offerings.

Therefore, the onus will be on Benioff, a formidable orator, to tie it all together for customers during his own keynote.

Pressure on partners?

At last week's TechCrunch Disrupt conference Benioff revealed that Salesforce.com would be entering yet two more lines of business, identity management and online document storage and backup, with ventures called Salesforce Identity and Chatterbox.

During Dreamforce, Salesforce.com is expected to discuss in more detail these moves, which are being seen by some as direct attacks against partners such as startups Okta and Box, the latter of which Salesforce.com has actually invested in.

But Benioff said he didn't view the industry as a "zero-sum game" and isn't interested in killing smaller companies.

Still, Salesforce.com's move into these areas as well as marketing, where it has longtime partners in the form of companies such as Marketo, could be causing some angst.

Salesforce.com has spent about US$1 billion in total to purchase Buddy Media, which provides tools for delivering targeted marketing through social media sites, and Radian6, maker of social analytics software.

At Dreamforce, marketing partners may find out if Salesforce.com plans to go even further into their turf.

"Salesforce.com is a juggernaut," said Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora, a cloud subscription billing and commerce software vendor and Salesforce.com partner. "If you're a partner and you don't think they're taking a hard look at your space, you're being completely blind."

"Any partner that's not thinking about dealing with Salesforce.com as a potential competitor or acquirer," he added.

In order to survive, "you've got to produce something of high value, with a high barrier to entry, something that's really, really hard to do," said Tzuo, who was also one of Salesforce.com's early employees. "If they think your product's easy to reproduce, and it's important to them, you're screwed."

Zuora seems like more of an acquisition target for Salesforce.com, particularly given the fact that Benioff is an investor in the company.

All in with ERP?

While Salesforce.com's functional footprint has gotten much broader over time, it still isn't much of a direct player in ERP (enterprise resource planning) software, which is ruled by the likes of Oracle and SAP, as well as a wide range of more specialized companies, and is mostly run on-premises.

This year's Dreamforce may be remembered as the time when Salesforce.com first planted a firm stake in the ERP market.

For one, expect to hear a lot about the shape of its partnership with upstart cloud ERP vendor Workday, which like Salesforce.com has positioned itself as a fresh alternative to the status quo.

The partnership "has always been kind of vague," Forrester Research's Martens said. It will be interesting to see whether Salesforce.com decides to link up closely with Workday on its financials module, as well as the more-established HCM (human capital management) software for which it's mostly known, she added.

There's also the likes of Kenandy, a fairly new ERP startup focused on manufacturing and supply chain, which was built on top of Force.com.

Coupled with Salesforce.com's partnerships with larger ERP vendors such as Infor, "suddenly you're starting to have something that looks like a best-of-breed business suite," Martens said.

That scenario in turn presents a single-sign on and identity management problem, which is just the sort of problem Salesforce.com Identity would take on.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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