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9/24/2012
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Salesforce ChatterBox: 4 Facts SMBs Should Know

Should SMBs drop their existing cloud filesharing and storage tools for Salesforce.com's upcoming app?

Microsoft SkyDrive Vs. Dropbox, Google: Hands-On
Microsoft SkyDrive Vs. Dropbox, Google: Hands-On
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Boxes, boxes everywhere.

Among the litany of announcements at last week's Dreamforce conference was the upcoming addition of ChatterBox, a filesharing and storage application, to Salesforce.com's Chatter platform for social business. "Employees will be able to share and manage their files in Chatter as easily as they share photos with their friends and family on Facebook," said Salesforce.com senior VP of marketing Doug Brewsher, in a blog post.

Yes, there's another "box" to sort through when considering your options for online filesharing, storage, and related functions. Salesforce even dubbed ChatterBox "the Dropbox for the enterprise" in its official announcement. It's a simple-yet-shrewd headline that name-drops the service everyone already knows, while evoking the security fears that it inspires in some businesses. Another box--Box.net--similarly stresses security in its pitch to IT departments. And of course there are other options for filesharing and storage--lots and lots of them. In the end, picking the right one might come down to a straightforward requirement: "People just want the ability to easily share stuff," said SMB Group partner Laurie McCabe in an interview.

[ Hot tech launches, like Apple's iPhone 5, increase employees' clamor to use their own devices on business networks. Does BYOD Make Sense For SMBs? ]

It's too soon to tell if ChatterBox will fulfill on that requirement because it isn't actually available yet. Salesforce.com said it will launch in the first half of 2013. Details such as pricing are hazy, though it's worth noting that companies currently can create a Chatter social network for free. In the meantime, here's what small and midsize businesses (SMBs) should bear in mind about ChatterBox.

1. It isn't a standalone service.

Unlike Dropbox and others, ChatterBox isn't necessarily designed as a separate app that you use on its own; rather it's an extension of the existing Chatter social platform. Whereas the offerings of some tech giants--Google Drive and Microsoft's SkyDrive come to mind--are direct challengers to Dropbox and others that specialize in filesharing and storage, ChatterBox is a bit different.

"Salesforce isn't necessarily throwing this out there to be a competitive offering to Dropbox," said Forrester senior analyst TJ Keitt in an interview. "They've got a notion of a business operating structure in which information flows freely between groups both inside the company and outside the company--they refer to this as their 'social enterprise' concept."

ChatterBox is ultimately one piece of how Salesforce intends to put that concept into practice throughout an organization. Bottom line for SMBs: If you're happy with your existing tools for sharing and storing information, you're probably not going to dump them for ChatterBox--unless you're a Salesforce shop looking to consolidate.

2. It will likely appeal most to existing Salesforce.com and Chatter users.

Because filesharing, storage, and related services have become a basic need--perhaps not as pervasive as email but getting closer and closer--it follows that Salesforce.com would want to serve that need within its own ecosystem. "Why would you want your customers going off to Box or to Dropbox if you can keep them doing more with you?" McCabe said.

Forrester's Keitt concurs, noting that ChatterBox will also help Salesforce with new customer acquisition: "[It's] another talking point about the completeness of the platform," he said. "I wouldn't say it's the leading thing that Salesforce will discuss when going out to the market."

As a result, ChatterBox will probably hold the most sway with the existing (and future) base of Salesforce.com and Chatter users. If it suits their needs, they're able to do more in a single place. "For any company already using Salesforce, I would be very surprised if they didn't at least take a look at ChatterBox," McCabe said. "It's just easier to do things from one central location, rather than having to go another to URL, remember another password, and everything else."

3. That user base might include your customers and other external groups.

McCabe notes that SMBs, and especially small businesses, are often beholden to the tools their customers use. IBM's SmartCloud might not be a good fit for a small office, for example, but that small office might still have to interact with it if it's what a larger client uses. That's also a big reason why Dropbox is a household name: "Everybody's using Dropbox," McCabe said. "We deal with very big clients that put stuff in Dropbox for us."

Even if ChatterBox isn't part of your internal plans, you may encounter it in external collaboration with partners and customers. "We have to go where our clients go," McCabe said. "We have to go use the tools they use."

4. There's room for more than one box.

That "Dropbox for the enterprise" tagline would make it seem like Salesforce is taking dead aim at the existing market for filesharing and storage. But that's not quite accurate, as Keitt noted. And even if it was, there's plenty of room for platform-independent tools, especially for external collaboration.

"There's always going to be a need for that. You might be a Salesforce shop, but the other company might be a Microsoft shop or a Google shop," McCabe said. "Sometimes you need Switzerland."

Even small IT shops can now afford thin provisioning, performance acceleration, replication, and other features to boost utilization and improve disaster recovery. Also in the new, all-digital Store More special issue of InformationWeek SMB: Don't be fooled by the Oracle's recent Xsigo buy. (Free registration required.)

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