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Do You Want Your Apps to Talk Back to You (as a Chatterbox)? - Part 1

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: June 1 2010



Let me start this blog series with one disclaimer: I am not an early adopter and I do not easily fall for any vendor’s slick marketing. At a recent large user conference, a vendor’s staffer asked me why I wasn’t already using an iPad tablet computer.

That question cracked me up, since I still use an Apple’s discontinued iBook notebook (besides the fact that I might only start using the latest tablet bestseller when it begins to feature computer multi-tasking, an USB flash drive port, and a CD/DVD drive). My laptop computer seems quite ancient now, but it still works and seems indestructible like a Volkswagen Beetle, in spite of all the abuses it has endured at airports, airplanes, and cafes for years.

With all this personal background laid out, I now have to admit that for all these years I have also cast a skeptical eye on Salesforce.com. Sure, the company has been growing admirably for all that time while even achieving modest profits, but I have also been aware of it constantly announcing (i.e., creating buzz about) new concepts and products well before they were generally available (GA). Salesforce.com would then have to actually deliver on these products' hyped promises, which would be another opportunity for buzz creation (in a "we told you so" manner).



The vendor’s habit of constantly changing its marketing naming conventions and branding of its novel concepts only fed my confusion and consternation. How many of you were really able to immediately understand the verbose press releases (PRs) about unveiling AppExchange (now AppExchange 2), Apex (or Salesforce Code), Salesforce for Google AdWords, VisualForce (now Salesforce Sites), IdeaForce, or Force.com at the time (and who knows what other "force" has come out of the Saleforce.com’s tireless marketing department)?

Mission (Accomplished): Cloud Computing Driver, Catalyst and Evangelist

Lately, however, the self-promoting software as a service (SaaS) and public cloud computing leader with the slick marketing has finally managed to convince me of its substance and product delivery as well. In hindsight, the company’s decade of existence begins to make perfect sense to me in terms of its “bigger picture” game play.

Historically, the vendor started in the customer relationship management (CRM) space from a mere applications footprint perspective. From a development framework aspect, all of Salesforce.com’s (and many of its partners’) applications are built on the Force.com platform. On top of its platform Salesforce.com has built application suites such as the Sales Cloud 2 for sales force automation (SFA) and Service Cloud 2 for customer service and support.

The cloud platform play is a logical move for Salesforce.com to broaden its possible revenue streams, since the CRM market is heavily competitive, of limited expansion potential, and will eventually become commoditized. Salesforce.com’s Force.com cloud platform is a platform as a service (PaaS) rather than an infrastructure as a service (IaaS) offering, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS). PaaS means that end-users and independent software vendors (ISVs) do not need to provide their own software development environment or worry about the system’s capacity elasticity. These facilities have all been provided and handled behind the scenes by Salesforce.com.

The vendor has lately also been offering Force.com to its corporate customers to build so-called Custom Cloud 2 applications themselves. These solutions have reportedly been built by primarily using (80 percent or so) point-and-click configuration, while pure coding in the Apex language is used for the rest of the development needs. Salesforce.com claims that this ratio is exactly the opposite in case of traditional Java or Microsoft.NET-based development environments.

Salesforce.com has noticed the following three key groups of Force.com-based applications that customers typically develop on their own:

  1. Departmental applications, such as for talent management (recruiting)

  2. Business process-oriented applications, such as to facilitate a particular lead-to-order or opportunity-to-cash process

  3. Quickly-built (often temporary) Web sites, such as a site (landing page) to accommodate certain campaign or a registration process


For its part, AppExchange is an online directory of cloud applications that work with those by Salesforce.com. These third-party applications are written either directly on Force.com or in other tools but “talk” to Salesforce.com via Salesforce.com application programming interfaces (APIs).

Not Getting “Social” Initially

What I really want to focus on 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, now has a product offering that might actually be thought of in iPad terms. This is a notable accomplishment.

But let me backtrack a bit and revert to my being a late adopter (although not necessarily a laggard). As for Facebook, I only joined it a year ago or so after my niece’s invitation. I’ve since evolved to now use the network as one of my first Web pages (aggregated portals) to open in the morning (of course after checking the latest work-related e-mails).

An average Facebook user spends 57 minutes a day in the application, according to Salesforce.com’s “Chatter -- Collaboration Cloud” luncheon event in Boston in early April. I would indeed belong to the average Facebook user group for admittedly spending that much time on the portal. I solemnly swear that I will never waste time on supposedly addictive games such as FarmVille or MafiaWars, but I do get immersed in a flow of relevant data and events that come my way (likely “looking for my attention” based on my stated preferences, interests, connections, etc.).

To my amazement or dismay, I’ve meanwhile discovered many previously unknown facts about my friends, family members, and acquaintances (whose invitations I have accepted for the time being), but that is not all. Namely, Facebook has even proactively informed me about important events organized by the software vendors that I follow or about some relevant articles or blog posts based on the magazine or association (group, cause, etc.) that I follow (or like).

Needless to say, Facebook is a neat content management place for storing the pictures of my family to share with my cousins and friends that are scattered across many continents. It is a small wonder then that one Disney executive has recently publicly admitted how Facebook has allowed him to get to know his daughter better than all these years of raising her. And very recently, Facebook has reportedly overtaken Google in numbers of use cases on the Internet.

On the other hand, I’ve long resisted the urge to join the visually unappealing Twitter and for a long time I did not understand its purpose, i.e., the need to follow (often asinine and ego-driven) tweets from narcissists about their whereabouts and ad-hoc thoughts. I finally joined in upon a suggestion from one vendor’s staffer that I should at least broadcast my recent article postings via Twitter as well as solicit input to my forthcoming topics from my followers.

Ever since, I’ve evolved into using it to follow about thousand (and likely growing) people and topics of interest. There are even useful Twitter add-on applications (e.g., TweetDeck) that can filter and deliver relevant data and events to my attention.

While I am not a social network evangelist, I at least now get the value of these lightweight, user-driven, user-created streams. The flurry of thoughts and reactions (i.e., the conference chatter) of my peers while attending various vendors’ events has been a new useful experience for me of late. Some adept vendors are listening to these chatters during conference calls and their own events, at least to be in step with these pundits’ thought process (without the need for mind-reading).

Not Getting Salesforce Chatter Initially Either

For the above reasons of being a late adopter (if not perhaps slow on the uptake when it comes to “coolness”), my first reaction to Salesforce Chatter (a.k.a. Collaboration Cloud) was tepid. To be frank, Marc Benioff, Saesforce.com’s flamboyant CEO, gave an atypically incoherent and dry keynote speech when he introduced Chatter at Dreamforce 2009.

The Facebook and Twitter paradigms within on-demand enterprise applications were intriguing, but there was no clear differentiating message for me at the time. After all, Benioff admitted to “borrowing” the ideas from Facebook, Twitter, EviteApple’s Genius Bar, and so on, which was also in contrast to Salesforce.com’s proven original thinking.

In fact, this use paradigm might seem revolutionary to “big iron” ERP guys, but it has been kind of obvious to many smaller and more nimble vendors. Namely, Exact Software has for almost a decade been offering a multifaceted Web-based collaboration software called Synergy (formerly e-Synergy). Having apparently been ahead of the times, Exact has been somewhat struggling to position a product that is a mile wide and a few inches deep, and will likely welcome any validation from Chatter (and more marketing savvy Salesforce.com).

Moreover, some on-demand and open-source vendors have put much effort into robust APIs and scripting tools to make the data more accessible to ordinary people (e.g., see the "xTuple" definition in the namesake company’s FAQ page). Many lesser-known vendors have a knack of pretty well-defined concepts of events and alerts in the system that can be sent to users via screen pops, email, fax, etc. It shouldn’t be the most difficult undertaking in the world to extend those to some type of social application.

A News Feeds Overload: How to Streamline it?

Overall, I thought at the time that Salesforce Chatter was a helpful idea, but nothing revolutionary: just another way of getting more people to effectively use the system (which of course should be everyone's goal in the first place). There seemed nothing particularly new or different about the technology (is there ever?). What was different, though, was that the social tools have given people a framework for thinking about using applications differently.

All that needs to happen now for widespread business adoption is the proper use of business rules and corporate policies. While sharing, ubiquity, "following" and so on are useful dynamics and features, the biggest issue I see with these social applications paradigms is striking the right balance between important and not-so-important feeds. Already I find that I'm spending more time than I should following various people's tweets and statuses, since my darn multi-protocol instant messenger (IM) client (Trillian) gives me little pop-up windows as soon as there are changes.

Yes, I could turn it off, but I don't, and thus it is not hard to envision people in a corporate setting getting caught in feedback swirls and loops with the new "tool." This is not an argument against social tools adoption - just an observation that as with any technology, companies need to do their homework, think, plan, and put some defined processes and policies in place (where Salesforce.com will prove me right in subsequent parts of this series).

Certainly, there was no dearth of blog posts at the time of Dreamforce 2009, but they did not really explain the true purpose of Chatter to me any better. Many of these bloggers initially misunderstood Chatter as a social media platform for the outside world and the public (i.e., Salesforce.com's version of Facebook or Twitter), whereas the product’s sole aim was collaboration (perhaps with social network paradigms) within the four walls of an enterprise.

Possibly the best article explaining the true nature of Chatter at the time came from Appirio, a committed developer of professional services products on cloud platforms (including Force.com). The following is a useful extract:
“Enterprise apps have been silent for far too long. They contain tons of great information and insight about a company but getting anything out of them is complex, especially in time to take action. As anyone who has used SAP or Oracle knows, it is far from simple to perform routine business tasks like finding out which of my customers aren't current on their payments, where my region is relative to forecasts or why an opportunity close date got pushed. These types of basic queries often require calling IT, taking a deep breath and praying for a response. There must be a better way.

We've tried to fill the gap with e-mail. Someone runs a report and sends out an email asking why something happened. People look into various systems, discuss, and reply in email. The interaction is anything but smooth, and all history of the change in data and resulting analysis and conclusions is lost forever in that email trail. In our personal lives, we've begun to enjoy information about our friends, family and business contacts at a near-instant rate. The velocity of information has accelerated with the advent of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

The result of this contrast in styles of information exchange is that enterprise apps have become marginal to the lives of 80% of business users within a company. Both Oracle and SAP have attempted band-aid solutions to this through BI, dashboards and attempted integrations with equally archaic methods of communication like Microsoft Outlook, but that has done little to address the fundamental issue. Enterprise apps contain tons of great information that the majority of a company could benefit from, if only business users could actually access that information and act on it in a timely manner.”

Part 2 of this series will explain how my attendances of recent Salesforce.com’s CloudForce events have changed my understanding of Chatter’s value proposition. 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 Salesforce Chatter in particular (if you happen to be an early beta user).
 
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