Salesforce1: a case of style over substance?

By Peter Gothard
06 Jan 2014 View Comments
Brightly coloured trainers with clouds

Much has already been written about this year’s Dreamforce conference – CRM vendor Salesforce’s annual knees-up that this year seemed to be devoted more to founder and CEO Marc Benioff than any new product. Indeed, according to some observers, it was the most vacuous industry event in recent memory.

But was all the patter, flashing lights and 9am rock concerts truly only intended to hide a dearth of real progress?

The “big” announcement of the event was the new Salesforce1 platform, but it took Benioff a hell of a long time to get round to mentioning it in his keynote. First the audience had to sit through two numbers by Huey Lewis and the News, guest appearances by the prime minister of Haiti and Sean Penn, and news of recent developments at the Marc Benioff Children’s Hospital in downtown San Francisco.

At one point marketeers were told they must live in the future, be “ahead of their customers”, and wait to greet them when they arrive – a point rammed home by co-founder and technology vice-president Parker Harris, who arrived on stage “from the future” in a Doc Brown fright wig.

Finally, well into the second hour of the presentation, the audience got some meat when Benioff held his iPhone aloft and declared that Salesforce has now gone fully mobile thanks to Salesforce1.

An HTML5-based app UI that supposedly draws together most of Salesforce’s current offerings – basically APIs related to their own products and those they’ve acquired in recent years such as ExactTarget, Radian6 and Desk.com – Salesforce1 is based on the company’s Chatter app.

Salesforce claims that in the year it took to develop Salesforce1 it increased the number of APIs tenfold. This is hard to back up, especially as Harris, at a press conference following the keynote, began admitting to just how many Salesforce products will remain outside the new mobile wrapping.

“Do.com [a social productivity site] is being shut down,” he said. “But the Files functionality [an enterprise file sharing service] is very much available. Except for Do.com, everything else is happening. Do.com just wasn’t a great strategy for us; we needed to bring it within one codebase.”

Harris added that Do.com “heavily influenced what [Salesforce] needed to do, which is reinventing task management”. He described Files and Chatter as now being “under the umbrella of Salesforce1”.

But at the same time, there may not be so much of an emphasis on using many of Salesforce’s old acquisitions if ƒSalesforce1 truly takes off. Another claim by Benioff is that Salesforce’s visual builder for browser apps, known as VisualForce, works perfectly on mobile, and that mobile client libraries are joining this gamut of new APIs.

On paper, this potentially means a no-holds barred approach to mobile for those building Salesforce apps, whether inside the Salesforce browser UI on mobile, or even entirely standalone. Whether businesses decide to become reliant on Salesforce1 as a platform in itself, or code independently, it’s a shrewd attempt by Benioff to tackle the so-called “app gap” that is currently holding back migration from enterprise desktop to consumerised mobile platforms.

But there are those who strongly believe Salesforce1 is entirely snake oil.

“There’s no ‘it’,” Gartner analyst Robert DeSisto told Computing, referring to the new platform.

“They’ve increased the plumbing between the multiple ‘its’. They run on separate things, on separate platforms. For example, Heroku is in a separate stack, written on top of Force.com.”
DeSisto believes that Salesforce1 is, in essence, “a consumption story”.

“They buy a company, they do API development, and it becomes part of the Salesforce1 family of platforms. This story doesn’t just clean up their existing act, but lets them carry on buying companies in order to grow,” he said.

Despite its much-trumpeted “$1bn quarter” just gone, Salesforce has yet to turn a profit, its growth is slowing, and its stock value is wobbling. Would Benioff risk the company by pulling the wool over customers’ eyes with a simple, under-featured API wrapper? Only time, and customer application, will truly tell, but at the very least Salesforce (and more specifically Benioff) could learn to shout a little less loudly about cloud-connected toothbrushes and humanitarian causes, and remember to focus a technology conference on the technology.

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