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Facebook Wannabe Salesforce.com Intros Chatter Mobile

Collaboration app for iPad, iPhone, RIM and Android will let CRM users follow sales opportunities, customers, service issues and colleagues.

Is Salesforce.com bringing its Facebook-meets-the-enterprise thing a bit too far?

In the latest milestone in its crusade to make enterprise apps more like Web 2.0 consumer apps, Salesforce.com on Wednesday announced Chatter Mobile. The free smart-phone app will bring CRM-centric, social-networking-style collaboration to Apple iPhones, the iPad and RIM Blackberry devices by year end. A Google Android app will follow early next year.

The new app will mobilize the social-network-style Chatter collaboration application Salesforce launched in June. Chatter lets users subscribe to and "follow" feeds related to sales opportunities, top accounts, service issues, reports, metrics, bosses, colleagues, projects, groups and more just as they would a Facebook friend.

Salesforce has embedded Chatter as a free service that can be turned on within its cloud-based sales and service applications. The functionality is also exposed through the Force.com development platform, so partners and customers can "Chatterize" vertical and custom applications.

Chatter Mobile untethers Chatter from the desktop. "Why can't I collaborate when I'm on line at Starbucks or on the train on my way to work," said Al Falcione, Salesforce.com's senior direct of product marketing in an interview with InformationWeek. "That's how people expect to work today, just as they expect to access consumer mobile apps on their iPhone or Android device."

Chatter Mobile will undoubtedly help Chatter succeed by exposing it to more users. Even without mobility, about a quarter of Salesforce.com's 80,000-plus customers have turned the Chatter functionality on, according to Falcione. But beyond customer quotes and selected anecdotes, few details are available on just how many employees are actively using the functionality and what they're using it for.

Not without controversy, Salesforce.com has designed Chatter to ingest Facebook and Twitter feeds so users can monitor what customers and prospects are saying on public networks. That could help a mobile salesperson gain timely insight as they are headed into a client meeting.

Thankfully, there are tight security controls so internal Chatter feeds don't end up as fodder on Facebook or Twitter. But productivity minded employers must question when work-oriented collaboration crosses the line into time-wasting gossip and friend following. For bosses, employees and HR managers, the mix of collaboration and more personal musings has a scarier dimension.

Another twist is the entirely separate world of Salesforce.com's existing mobile applications. The free Mobile Lite client for iPhone, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile devices supports two-way viewing and editing of contacts and service records. The full Mobile CRM app offers access to calendaring, to-do lists, alerts, GIS-powered customer/prospect proximity searching, call logging, task workflows and document access.

So which mobile app should customers choose? Both expose the same underlying information and both have advantages and disadvantages. Falcione says the Mobile CRM application lets you drill into opportunities at greater depth. But it doesn't expose new comments and developments, the way Chatter Mobile does, unless you actively search.

Has Salesforce thought of blending the two approaches?

"I don't think we've built a link as yet that opens up the Mobile CRM view of the same information you're accessing in Chatter Mobile," Falcione said.

Salesforce.com's theme this year has been, "why can't enterprise apps be more like Facebook?" But if workers find themselves following too many leads, services cases, customers and co-workers (not to mention Tweets and Facebook friends), employers and employees alike just might ask, "why can't my enterprise app be more like... an enterprise app?"

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