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Salesforce.com's Goal: Become An On-Demand Information Provider

The vendor continues to move beyond its roots as a provider of on-demand CRM software--this time by positioning itself as a hub for managing all types of business information.
Salesforce.com Inc. continues to move beyond its roots as a provider of on-demand customer-relationship-management software--this time by positioning itself as a hub for managing all types of business information. It's trumpeting its summer release as a major step toward making that possible. "It is perhaps the hardest problem we've tried to solve," CEO Marc Benioff told press, analysts, and customers gathered at a San Francisco hotel Tuesday afternoon.

Salesforce's upcoming release includes a toolkit that will let companies build portals through which business partners can access, or contribute to, their Salesforce deployments. The new data loader is designed to let companies exchange data between their Salesforce environments and other legacy, packaged, and custom applications. A single sign-on function will let administrators integrate with Windows or LDAP directories for simplified authentication into Salesforce apps. And with a new self-service API, companies will be able to build self-service features into customer-facing applications, portals, and identity-management systems, according to the vendor.

"The value we have, with all of this coming down the pike, is enormous," says Leimomi Hall, strategic sales manager for Hawaiian Airlines and a Salesforce customer. Hall says the partner portal-building kit lends itself to numerous possibilities, such as letting a visitors' bureau in Hawaii submit sales leads that would automatically populate Salesforce apps.

Perhaps the key component detailed Tuesday was Multiforce, the on-demand operating system Benioff promised several weeks ago would be part of the summer release. Multiforce lets users click on a drop-down menu to toggle between applications or business processes built on Salesforce's Sforce development platform, thus simplifying the user interface and enabling Salesforce to become the front end for a growing assortment of business tools.

Multiforce already is letting beta customers such as Magma Design Automation Inc., a maker of chip design software, simplify the way its users work with applications and business processes. "It really is multitasking between different business processes," says David Brooks, director of product engineering CRM. As the number of such processes built into Magma's Salesforce environment grows, it becomes more confusing for users trying to find the right tab that will take them to the information and tools they need, says Brooks. He and his staff have been clustering those tabs into logical groups to make sure users "don't get blown away by everything."

Frost & Sullivan analyst Fred Landis believes the vendor is on the right track with its evolution from on-demand sales-force automation to on-demand information management. "The first thing that hits me is that it's pervasive on-demand computing," Landis says of the road map Benioff outlined Tuesday. He says it's the developing expertise in high-availability computing, not CRM, that's now differentiating Salesforce in the market.

That jibes with Benioff's vision of software being viewed by companies as a utility they can plug into, a vision that's keeping Salesforce from getting mired in building on-demand enterprise applications. Benioff said Tuesday that he's constantly asked whether Saleforce will offer a general ledger or an ERP offering. "We're not doing that, we're building a platform," he said. "We could never build and deploy applications for our customers as easily as they can build and customize them themselves."