Flying Through the Cloud: Dreamforce Takeaways at 50,000 Feet

A couple of weeks ago, I attended Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce event–along with about 19,000 other people. Having had a chance to digest the proceedings (as well as Thanksgiving dinner), here’s my commentary on what stood out as the top takeaways from the conference in terms of where Salesforce is headed and what it means for the software industry and market.

  • Super-charged energy levels. Ever the master of marketing, Marc Benioff did not disappoint. As he continues to thrust Salesforce beyond its CRM roots into ever-widening orbits, Benioff’s passion and enthusiasm remain high—and contagious, as evidenced by  the strong turnout, constant tweeting and feedback I heard in many 1-1 partner and customer conversations. (Not to mention that people were lined up to have their pictures taken with Salesforce mascots Saasy and Chatty…scary!). More to the point, the energy level at Dreamforce was off the charts in comparison to most recent industry events. While it’s easy to be cynical about people drinking the Kool-Aid, it seems the substance is there to sustain Salesforce’s energy. Competitors will need to dig deep to inspire the same intensity of purpose as Benioff breaks new ground in quest to develop Salesforce.com’s next billion dollar market.
  • May the Force be with you. Force.com, Salesforce.com’s cloud computing platform-as-a-service (PaaS), is fueling a lot of this energy. Force.com enables people to build multi-tenant software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications that are hosted on Salesforce.com’s servers. A long line of customers and partners testified to the power of the Force–which is basically that it gives them a fast, easy, low risk way to build applications.  According to Salesforce, 200,000 people are now developing on the platform, and 100,000 custom applications have already been built for it. More important, Force.com is racking up wins across many segments, including small end-user customers, such as Ball In Air, to larger corporate customers, such as Kelly Services. On the commercial development side, Salesforce has reeled in an impressive roster of partners large and small, young and established. Here’s a sampler: Xactly launched a new sales performance solution for small and medium businesses (SMBs); FinancialForce, which Salesforce invested in with Coda to to deliver business critical financials solutions on the platform; BMC is partnering with Salesforce to bring Service Desk Express to the Force.com platform in 2010; and CA and Salesforce are teaming up to deliver agile development management via the Force.com platform.  As Force.com development momentum accelerates, it leaves less time and money for companies to invest with  traditional platform powerhouses such as Microsoft and IBM.
  • Unveiling Chatter. The biggest news was about Chatter, Salesforce’s strategy to aggregate social media streams into a single place. According to Salesforce, Chatter will both a collaboration application and a platform for building social cloud-computing apps, and will be available sometime in 2010. To me  “chatter” is one of those words that can get very annoying when overused—and Benioff must have used the word “Chatter” about 80 gazillion times in the keynote alone, leading me to imagine that he will have the Rolling Stones rewrite Shattered to Chattered as a marketing gimmick. But with adoption of social media skyrocketing, Salesforce is likely envisioning Chatter as a good bet for it’s next billion in revenues. After all, collaboration is the one thing every employee does, every day, regardless of role. Naturally, Salesforce has set its sights on the collaboration gorillas,  IBM Lotus and Microsoft SharePoint. Of course, this is unchartered territory for Salesforce, which hasn’t really ventured here before, and it will have to navigate a lot of new turf in areas such as corporate governanc, which bigger rivals have had years of experience with. At the same time, Salesforce will also need to deal with newer, more nimble Davids–such as CloudProfile, which lets small businesses manage both outgoing and incoming social media in one place.
  • No longer David, not yet Goliath. Salesforce has clearly left the David stage of development, but is not yet a Goliath. At the analyst luncheon, a very astute analyst (apologies that I did not get his name) asked Benioff how Salesforce will position itself and operate now that it’s a billion dollar company, with a very large appetite for a bigger chunk of the software pie. Benioff assured us that Salesforce still wants to do good in the world and put customers first, etc. (I’m paraphrasing of course). However, a new crop of Davids, such as Zoho, are nipping at Salesforce’s heels, with effective guerilla marketing, strong viral adoption and no/low cost offerings. As a tweener, Salesforce must navigate and position amidst the competition from both above and below. Just as important, it will need to rethink its “co-opetition” agenda. For instance, Benioff repeatedly cast IBM Lotus as old-school collaboration, apparently unaware (or unwilling to acknowledge) that Lotus has reinvented itself for the world of Web 2.0 and social media with offerings such as Connections, LotusLive, Sametime, Quickr—just to name a few. In fact, the vision for Chatter looks a lot like Lotus Connections.

Apart from feeling a bit too chattered, my overall take is that Salesforce will continue to rearrange the competitive landscape as it moves into new areas. While it’s not always the first to innovate, Salesforce is among the best when it comes to helping customers “get it” in terms of  using new technologies and tools to solve business problems. Competitors who underestimate its ability to reframe the market—whether the market is development platforms, collaboration or character mascots—risk ending up on the short end of the stick.