Salesforce.com encourages imitators

Salesforce.com expects developers to use the latest version of its software to build their own hosted "killer" applications

Salesforce.com positioned the latest version of its on-demand software, which includes its Apex platform, as providing the necessary tools for other companies to emulate its success in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) market.

The vendor officially went live with the Salesforce Winter 07 release of its hosted customer relationship management (CRM) software Tuesday. Salesforce.com's own developers use the Apex environment and the Apex Code programming language to create the company's SaaS products.

"This is probably our boldest step yet in the transition to becoming a platform company," said Kendall Collins, senior vice president of product marketing at Salesforce.com. "We've done all the heavy lifting so that developers can focus on innovation and not infrastructure."

Such a move potentially opens the door to a third party using the vendor's resources to create hosted CRM applications superior to Salesforce.com's own software. Collins and Bruce Francis, vice president of corporate strategy at Salesforce.com, don't see that possibility as a threat, but more of an opportunity to widen their user base since such a rival CRM offering would be based on Apex.

Already, they point out, Salesforce.com's one-year-old AppExchange Web site features CRM technologies from third-parties that outperform the e-mail marketing and analytics it supplies.

"Our vision is to see millions of applications on AppExchange," Francis said. The Web site currently features more than 500 applications, up from the 100 or so when it launched in January 2006. Salesforce.com plans to more fully commercialize AppExchange as a complete online software marketplace later this year.

The two executives singled out two vendors that have already built products they consider could be "killer" hosted applications in their respective vertical fields. Bluewolf Group provides a customized version of Salesforce for the entertainment industry with its MediaTrak SaaS, while Okere offers a tailored version of the CRM software for capital-market customers.

Salesforce.com also made its Apex Code programming language available to developers in a preview version. The company plans to run a beta program for customers later this year, followed by general availability before the end of 2007. The Java-like language enables third-party developers to write code to create multitenant hosted applications that can run directly on Salesforce.com's servers.

Salesforce.com has no plans to open-source Apex Code, but might examine that option as it receives feedback from developers on the preview release. "Our goal is ubiquity," Francis said. "We'll listen to all great ideas."

The vendor also announced new Apex developer toolkits for Ajax and Eclipse along with a new Wiki-based developer site known as the Apex Developer Network (ADN) to foster a community around the Salesforce.com language.

Following the lead of other technology players, Salesforce.com is also doing its bit for the environment. Under the name Earthforce, the vendor is taking its first major step toward becoming a carbon-neutral company, Francis said. The nonprofit Salesforce.com Foundation will invest in a series of environmental renewal projects to offset the carbon emissions generated by the company's offices, data centers and corporate travel.

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