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9/20/2012
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Chatter In The Air, Everywhere

Salesforce.com expands its Chatter product family, while GE and Virgin America are exploring exotic applications of the enterprise social network.

Enterprise Social Networks: Must-Have Features Guide
Enterprise Social Networks: Must-Have Features Guide
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Chatter for customers, Chatter for partners, Chatter for GE jet engines, Chatter in flight for passengers on Virgin Atlantic. This week's Dreamforce conference is bursting with examples of how Salesforce.com is extending its enterprise social network and the new ways customers are finding to use it.

In addition to playing up its Chatter Communities for Partners and Chatter Communities for Service (both available to select customers, with general availability scheduled for the first half of 2013), Salesforce is introducing a file-sharing addition to the product line called ChatterBox. Meant to be Salesforce's version of "Dropbox for the enterprise," ChatterBox is expected to enter customer pilot tests in the first half of 2013, with pricing and general availability yet to be announced.

ChatterBox puts Salesforce in competition with Box, one of the more enterprise-oriented cloud file sharing services, which offers a version of its service through the Salesforce.com AppExchange. Box for Salesforce embeds Box file sharing in Salesforce.com customer records. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said he decided file sharing was an essential platform component to keep the Force.com platform competitive, much like the social feed user interface provided by Chatter. ChatterBox was created at the request of customers who trust the Salesforce.com platform more than they trust other cloud applications, according to Benioff. While Salesforce has offered some file storage as part of its platform prior to this, he said, "It's critical for today's platforms to have this next generation file management."

[ For more on the Dreamforce conference, see Salesforce.com Unifies, Extends Cloud Portfolio. ]

In a meeting with press and analysts, Benioff faced similar questions about whether the creation of a Marketing Cloud from the acquisitions of Radian6 and Buddy Media (part of a broader product unification strategy) would eventually put it on a collision course with partners like Eloqua, a marketing automation vendor. Eloqua is a longtime Salesforce partner that recently introduced Chatter integration with its own product.

Benioff pointed out that there is a difference between the social media marketing area Salesforce is targeting and other marketing requirements that vendors like Eloqua address. Similarly, even though Salesforce is edging into the Human Capital Management market with its new Work.com offering (a retooling of its Rypple acquisition), Benioff said he expects to remain on good terms with Workday as a partner because it manages traditional "system of record" human resources information management chores. In contrast, Salesforce bought Rypple because it "looked at managing people in a highly collaborative way, which is very symmetrical with what we see with Chatter." When the products are used together, Work.com's social recognition and rewards functions will be exposed as a tab on the Chatter user interface.

As part of his keynote address on Wednesday, Benioff showcased a series of success stories to reflect the "business is social" theme of the conference, some of them quite exotic. He recounted an opportunity GE CEO Jeff Immelt gave him to make a presentation to 40 top executives about what the future of GE should look like. He got Immelt to give him a hint, which was that GE saw one element of its future revolving around the man-machine interface for products like jet engines, as well as better customer service for those products. So the GE Share implementation of Chatter Benioff proposed, which the company is now implementing, includes the idea that products like jet engines should be able to "collaborate" on the enterprise social network. What this really means is that these highly instrumented products should be able to provide data feeds that become part of the conversation between a customer trying to resolve an issue and engineers and support staff at GE.

"The data on our equipment gives us tremendous amounts of information, and this just unlocks that for us," said GE CIO Charlene Begley, who appeared as part of the keynote. Immelt is scheduled to speak at the event on Thursday.

Virgin America is pursuing a vision of putting a bigger in-flight entertainment and information screen on the back of every seat, with Chatter as one of the features passengers will have access to. That upgrade to the airline's fleet is coming next year, according to Virgin America CEO David Cush. Virgin already allows passengers to message each other during a flight, but with Chatter they'll also have the potential of interacting with Virgin support staff on the ground. As Cush explains it: "You sit down at your seat. The screen is going to greet you, and it's going to know what you like. It's going to know who you want to talk to. So what it means is when you get on the airplane, it's not four or six or eight hours of dead time, it's four or six or eight hours of the best time you could possibly have. Virgin America is going to be the first airline to invade this space and become a social enterprise."

That quote is from the video shown below, which includes a mockup of the seat-back app currently in development.

The idea is to open up the possibility of providing customer service while the plane is in flight, heading off problems, Cush said later in a Q&A session with press and analysts. Right now, people who experience service problems will write to complain about what happened, Cush explained. "But with earlier intervention, the conversation could instead be, 'This is what happened to me--can you fix it?'"

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