There’s something different about Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff as he bounds on stage at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. It takes a moment or two to realise that it’s the beard he’s sporting - and yet another to come to disconcerting realisation of just how much he now looks like actor Brian Blessed.
This has some potentially grave implications. For a start, is he going to do lots and lots of shouting about CRM? And what is it about hi-tech CEOs and their eventual mutation in what can only be termed 'the beardy phase'? His old boss Larry Ellison did it. Apple’s Steve Jobs did it. Is it a necessary evolutionary move?
Benioff’s explanation is simple: he's just back from vacation in his beloved Hawaii. But he’s back, seemingly refreshed and invigorated, to talk to customers and partners about what the company is pitching as the evolution of an applications development community based around the foundation platform of Salesforce.com’s software as service offering.
Benioff's conviction that Salesforce.com’s fundamental mission to bring about the ‘end of software’ remains intact. "When they built this gorgeous hotel, they did not build their own power plant, they did not dig a well on the street for water, they did not put in a leachpit for sanitation - they put in modern utiliities," he declaims. "We believe strongly that there is the potential, the possibility, the absolute certainty that companies will not put in their own power plants to manage information, but will use their own utilities as well. Every aspect of the software industry can be replaced with the utility model."
Typically he's not about to hide Salesforce.com’s light under any bushels. "We have become the market leader in on demand CRM," he says. "We have eight times the number of subscribers as our nearest competitor, we added six times as many new subscribers as them in our most recent quarter. We have taken a first mover advantage to deliver tremendous marketshare."
Benioff argues that the company has defied its critics and naysayers in the six years of its life. "When we started people said you’ll never be able to do two things," he recalls. "They said 'You won’t be able to customise. You can do something out of the box, but you won’t be able to customise. And you won’t be able to integrate with other applications.' Well, for cusomisation we have CustomForce. There are customers who have taken the tools and models and capabilities of our service and done it exactly for them. They don’t just take a raw version out of a box and have something generic - they have it exactly for them. CustomForce makes that possible, almost as powerfully as 4GLs or rapid application development tools.
"For integration we have SForce. There are three things we need to be able to integrate. First there’s the desktop - the Microsoft desktop, the Lotus desktop, we have to be able to integrate Outlook and Excel and Lotus Notes. We also have the wireless desktop with the Blackberry and tools from IBM and Sun and other partners. And finally enterprise applications such as PeopleSoft, SAP and Siebel. We have customers who have done that integration.
"Customisation and integration are the ying and yang of making on demand successful. We have learned that over the past six years. We can deliver a full web services integration capability. Now we’re taking it to the next level with the summer release. SForce is used in a lot of different ways. A lot of people are doing SAP integration using SForce as the glue."
The growing community of companies and partners that are developing applications based on the Salesforce.com platform is a major point of pride for Benioff. "We have over 150 ISVs developing applications on top of our platform," he says.
Now there’s the next stage, he argues, beyond CRM. "Companies want to know how they can take this model and apply to information other than customer information, to other application categories," he says. “This has been perhaps the hardest problem we’ve had to tackle at Salesforce.com. The industry constantly moves on, but the underlying stack remains the same. We have to take that stack and replace it with a stack where we become the platform, where there’s an on demand database, where we have our own applications but there are also applications built on our platform, including customer built applications.
"After we take the stack, we have to be able to run multiple applications - which is why we are shipping MultiForce in June. MultiForce gives our customers the ability to run more on demand applications within their organisation. Salesforce.com becomes a hub for managing and sharing all the information, fully integrated with their legacy client server and mainframe systems."
Expansion into new applications area is not a Salesforce.com priority, he argues. "We are excited about having our own applications, but we are more excited about our customers developing their applications," he says. "There’s a whole new economy emerging around Salesforce.com of other new software companies building their own applications. Customers are also building thousands of their own applications. Our job is to take them to the next level and allow them to build and share their own applications.
"A lot of our peers are talking about their next generation products coming in 2008, such as Oracle and SAP and Microsoft,” he concludes. “We’re not talking about things coming in 2008 or 2010 - we’re talking about delivery now. We believe it is our responsility to move the ball down the field, You can do with on demand computing and application development and deployment all the things that you could do with client server computing."