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Do You Want Your App to Talk Back to You (as a Chatterbox)? - Part 2

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: June 17 2010



In Part 1 of this blog series I admitted to being a late adopter of a sort, in part for not immediately jumping onto the social media bandwagon. In particular, my initial reaction to Salesforce Chatter (a.k.a. Collaboration Cloud) was tepid. To be frank, Marc Benioff, salesforce.com’s flamboyant and engaging CEO, gave an atypically incoherent and dry keynote speech when he introduced Chatter at the Dreamforce 2009 conference.

However, a few months have passed and this period has helped salesforce.com craft a much clearer message. In addition, Chatter has reportedly been used within salesforce.com’s own organization (as the largest beta site/tester), which has given the vendor much more time and experience to improve and tweak the product.



Collaboration Moving to the Cloud

During its recent CloudForce tour, salesforce.com did a much better job of putting the computing trends into perspective. The cloud computing applications and platforms are becoming the IT model of today with the following characteristics: multi-tenant architecture, used in a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) manner, with elastic (as required) capacity, and in a real-time fashion. This contrasts sharply to the mainframe computers in the 1960s and client-server applications in the 1980/90s, which were rigid in all of the above aspects.

But in addition to applications and platforms moving to the cloud, there has been the trend of collaboration moving to the cloud, with the examples of Twitter, Facebook, Salesforce Chatter, IBM LotusLive, Cisco Webex, etc. This contrasts with the workgroup computing model of the 1980s (represented by Lotus Notes and Novell GroupWise) and intranets of the 2000s (e.g., Microsoft Groove, SharePoint, and the many flavors of file sharing).

Another evolutionary trend can be seen in the following 10-year computing cycles, whereby each decade has increased the number of users tenfold (compared to the previous decade): mainframe computing of the 1960s, minicomputing of the 1970s, client/server computing of the 1980s, desktop Internet computing of the 1990s, and mobile Internet computing of the 2000s. Morgan Stanley’s “The Mobile Internet Report” reports that social media users surpassed the number of e-mail users.

The same report claims that Facebook and YouTube are now almost equitably sharing the total number of Internet use cases with a combination of all renowned Web search enginesSmartphones are already on a par with notebook PCs (and both surpassed desktop computers in 2008) when it comes to how we access the Internet.

Fundamental Shift in Computing: Cloud 1 vs. Cloud 2

Salesforce.com is the first solely cloud-based company to exceed US$1.4 billion in revenues with over 77,300 corporate customers of all sizes. Possibly the best example of the pace of change in technology would be that even the Amazon.com, Google, and eBay metaphors of the early 2000s look a bit dated today in comparison to those of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Namely, the good traits of “Cloud 1.0” or the first generation of cloud applications – i.e., multitenancy, shared systems, trusted reliability and performance, “democratization” of enterprise applications, metadata-driven customization, mashupsWeb services-based integration, development as a service, multi-tenant development platform, application exchanges, and multi-device delivery -- are no longer enough in this day and age.

“Cloud 2” complements these traits with real-time collaboration and new devices that handle social data, social documents, social applications, and social platforms. In his guest blog post on TechCrunch, entitled “Hello iPad, Hello Cloud 2,” Benioff states the following:
“…The future of our industry now looks totally different than the past. It looks like a sheet of paper, and it’s called the iPad. It’s not about typing or clicking; it’s about touching. It’s not about text, or even animation, it’s about video. It’s not about a local disk, or even a desktop, it’s about the cloud. It’s not about pulling information; it’s about push. It’s not about repurposing old software, it’s about writing everything from scratch (because you want to take advantage of the awesome potential of the new computers and the new cloud—and because you have to reach this pinnacle). Finally, the industry is fun again.

Last week I gave presentations to more than 60 CIOs in various meetings throughout America’s heartland. My message to them: We are moving from Cloud 1 to Cloud 2, and the iPad is the accelerator. Many of them haven’t even made it to Cloud 1—some are still on mainframes. They are working on MVS/CICS, or Lotus Notes, and they have never heard of Cocoa, or even that there is now HTML 5. This is unacceptable. The next generation is here. The iPad that shows us what now is really possible—and that we all need to go faster. Unfortunately, some CIOs would rather retire than go faster…

…What’s most exciting is that this fundamental transformation—cloud + social + iPad—will inspire a new generation of wildly innovative new apps that will change entire industries.”

Other comparisons between Cloud 1 and Cloud 2 paradigms and metaphors are that tabs are being replaced by news feeds, chat is being replaced by video, creations of services are being replaced by consumption of those services, whereas Cloud 2 applications are also location-aware. Salesforce Chatter harnesses these Cloud 2 capabilities to help users stay on top of their critical issues.

What I really want to emphasize is that salesforce.com, after several years of vivid and sagacious hype about its products of unclear initial value, which would morph through many iterations before being generally acknowledged (as discussed in Part 1), now has a product offering that might actually be thought of in iPad terms. This is quite an achievement.

Salesforce Chatter (Somewhat) Explained

The best way to describe Chatter is to say that it exhibits many traits of Facebook and Twitter, but its use is confined to within an enterprise a la Yammer. This mosaic-like definition perhaps explains why it is difficult to describe the product (and its potential power) without seeing it in action (or even better, using it).

In any case, Chatter allows users to “befriend,” “follow,” or “like” any object contained in a customer's salesforce.com deployment. This could be a person (an associate) or a group of folks (a project team) and their statuses (what they are thinking about and working on), a database object (e.g., a contact, account, lead, opportunity, quote, campaign, service case, etc. in case of a customer relationship management [CRM] application), a document (a sales presentation or marketing collateral), or an event (a meeting), just to take a few different examples.

As in popular public social networks, Chatter users can "follow" objects of interest and be notified when something important changes in it or when somebody comments on it. In addition, users can comment on an individual’s and object’s status themselves.

In summary, Chatter allows employees to subscribe to an object and be notified when almost anything changes or when anybody says anything about it, or when someone adds relevant content (e.g., a presentation or a price list) to the record. What this adds up to is that any object gets surrounded with a rich context that is provided to relevant employees in real-time as the context and circumstances inevitably change.

Thus, it is easier for users to be on top of many important issues across the enterprise. In traditional enterprise applications, it has always been recognized that some context like the one above would be useful. How many of us have often missed out on critical information and then be frustrated to hear about a colleague who knew a key decision maker or who had a useful presentation for the prospect where we just lost a deal?

Along similar lines, how many times have you sent a proposal to a customer only to realize that there had been a very recent change in product pricing? How many times have we discovered a problem at a key customer only after that disgruntled customer had already left us?

Bypass Those Pesky E-mail Threads

The problem is that a vast majority of existing enterprise applications ask users to do all the work and somehow dig out relevant information (that is hopefully still current, and not after the fact). Many enterprise resource planning (ERP) or CRM systems allow users to attach documents to a record, e.g., to attach a manual or a drawing to the record for an item.

Also a common practice has been to build in some level of workflow into the records, so that users could audit when something had happened. Some systems will allow users to capture comments in the record, and to send out alerts via e-mail when something really important happens (e.g., in case of some escalation).

But these traditional tools have proven to be too slow, too complicated, and too expensive. For one, whatever users could attach would be attached to the record itself, so no one could see it without actually invoking the record. In addition, there was no practical way of filtering alerts and emails, and many users would thus either end up turning them off or counteractively burying other colleagues in them.

Many vendors already use workflows and alerts in CRM and with a flurry of e-mails it quickly becomes annoyingly counterproductive. So, every time circumstances are changing users can get totally overwhelmed with all the messaging in place.

E-mail is really an inefficient collaboration and content management tool and it does not scale. To that end, xTuple (a semi-open-source ERP vendor mentioned in Part 1) recently spun up a Drupal-based Web front-end content management system into its own CRM product, particularly for the incident management subsystem. Previously everything was based on e-mail (and phone).

Humanizing Users

Tools such as Salesforce Chatter elegantly overcome the current enterprise applications’ shortcomings of putting the onus on users to hunt for information. The result of using Chatter is a context that is richer, more relevant, and pushed out to users, as compared to a rudimentary context that had been provided previously and that users had to look for.

Moreover, Salesforce Chatter humanizes end users and shows us a smarter and more empowered way of collaboration. It does this by adopting the Facebook/Twitter broadcast paradigm, whereby its feed resembles the home page of these popular sites. In plain English, that feed manifests in the following two simple ways:

  • One, when something happens users can request that the system puts the information on their own event stream, without needing to go into the actual database record to see what happened.

  • Two, the system lets the users decide what's really important via setting up filters, groups, saved searches, etc.


In his other guest blog post on TechCrunch, entitled “The Facebook Imperative Cannot be Stopped,” Benioff explains the following:
“…With these new social models, there is a way to immediately leverage the knowledge of an organization. People with expertise and relevance are instantly looped in, can participate in the conversation, collaborate, and make contributions more simply than ever before. That will be the catalyst of this new productivity revolution—delivered through these new social enterprise platforms.

We have deployed Salesforce Chatter internally through our own beta program, and we are now using the social models proven by Facebook and Twitter to run our company. Our new social enterprise is built atop our existing business information and applications. It’s not partitioned off from other enterprise applications, but is an integrated part of it—offering a new view of the data that is more productive and easier to use. Through enterprise sharing models, filtering and discovery tools, users have full flexibility over which people and data they follow—allowing them to fully maximize the value of their own feeds and eliminating the risk of “pollutants” some critics fear.

The awareness I have today of what is happening with our employees, our customers, our products, our customer service escalations, and even the deals we are closing is spectacular. Social computing for the enterprise is about seeing what matters to your company, what is happening with your products, and among your people. It’s about the information you need to make decisions finding you…”

In a nutshell, Chatter provides a rich view in real-time of what are in themselves rather drab enterprise application records. Benioff claimed on the CloudForce stage that Chatter’s internal usage at salesforce.com has cut the corporate e-mail traffic by 40 percent. There are currently about 3,000 beta Chatter customers (there were 100 beta customers 45 days after the product’s unveiling), of which 250 are using salesforce.com's Service Cloud 2.

For early adopters and forward-looking prospective users, Chatter might be a clear differentiator and deal-breaker for salesforce.com. Microsoft CRM, SAP CRM, Sage SalesLogix, Oracle CRM OnDemand, and NetSuite do not have anything Chatter-like, and they will not have it for a while. We will have to wait and see the social features' usefulness of the recently launched Microsoft SharePoint 2010.

At this stage, Chatter shows the dynamic nature of unstructured data and processes being pushed to users as compared to SharePoint being a number of disparate tools (islands). Namely, a system integrator (SI) that deals with both salesforce.com and Microsoft Dynamics CRM referred to Microsoft SharePoint as a "grandma's attic" at the CloudForce stage. SharePoint has a number of possibly useful tools that one must arguably enhance via a major development work to get where Chatter is now “out of the box.”

No One (and Hardly Anything) Is Perfect

No product has even been perfect in its first release, and I can certainly nitpick at a few apparent shortcomings of Chatter. For one, there are no presence and unified communications (UC) features, in contrast to Facebook, Exact Synergy, or some Microsoft Dynamics applications. In fact, the Mozilla Thunderbird team is going deeper into a UC client, whereby applications such as Trillian (mentioned in Part 1) have been doing instant messaging (IM) for years. For example, users can already leverage AIM, Yahoo, MSN, ICQ, IRC, Google, Twitter, and Facebook all in one Trillian client.

Salesforce.com maintains that what it announced was the first step into a gigantic market and its goal is to be the leader in enterprise collaboration. It makes sense that the vendor moves into UC via partners, but is admittedly not there yet. Right now salesforce.com is focused on application-to-people-to-application collaboration. In the meantime, some partners might want to have a look to see whether Skype might integrate and help in this regard.

Salesforce.com points out that Chatter is entirely secure, and that “what gets chattered inside the enterprise stays in the enterprise” unless somebody with authority consciously and deliberately , say, sends a slide deck or an agenda to a customer. In other words, salesforce.com wants to assure users that they are not signing onto some horrible social networking application that will inadvertently spill their confidential corporate beans into the public domain.

But, don’t we sometimes want to collaborate and share content outside the four walls? Thus, Salesforce Chatter is not used on the customer portal in Service Cloud 2, and there are no validation rules (e.g., for bad and foul words) for Chatter posts at this stage.

In addition, it is not clear how Chatter can satisfy some heavily regulated environments, where emails and feeds are not considered as legally binding documents. How about the environments that still require physical paper trails and multiple signed copies to be archived?

Finally, the feeds inundation problem cannot really be addressed via current filters without a great deal more experience than salesforce.com currently has with Chatter. Inundation has been one of the biggest problems with Twitter and Facebook and it will be a problem here.

Chatter as a Platform

Be as it may, Salesforce Chatter is an intrinsic part of the Force.com platform, so it extends through all products including products written by some independent software vendors (ISVs). The tool is baked in all salesforce.com and Force.com-based applications, data, and content (with the option to be turned on or off for individual objects).

To that end, during its recent CloudForce events Salesforce.com unveiled ChatterExchange, an online applications directory currently with about 20 third-party ISV applications that are now generally available (GA) as "Chatterized." Some of the notable showcased applications are as follows: Appirio Professional Services Cloud, FinancialForce.com, ServiceMax Chatter, and CA Clarity PPM.

Salesforce.com is even entertaining the idea that Chatter could be a general enterprise platform on its own. The idea is that the entire enterprise could use Chatter-based solutions to provide information feeds, even for users that have no use at all for the core salesforce.com products or core salesforce.com data. One Chatter-based application was recently announced by FinancialForce.com and is called Chatterbox.

Chatterbox comes within FinancialForce.com but the idea is to also sell it to accounting departments as standalone. For more information on the product, see the company’s press release and related blog posts from ZDNet’s Dennis Howlett and Larry Dignan as well as from Sameer Patel.

The final part of this blog series will explain many design principles and possible use of Chatter and Chatterbox via my dialogue with Jeremy Roche, FinancialForce.com’s CEO and President,and UNIT4 CODA's chairman. In the meantime, please send me your comments, opinions, etc. I would certainly be interested in your experiences with the social software category in general and with Chatter in particular (if you happen to be an early beta user).
 
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