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Peter Gabriel at Dreamforce Europe

Peter Gabriel was a guest at the Dreamforce Europe conference this morning. He was introduced by CEO Marc Benioff and then interviewed.

Why was he there? He is promoting his work with Witness, which tackles the deniability of human rights abuses by encouraging and enabling victims and observers to publish photos and videos of what is taking place. Apparently the existence of this type of evidence makes a substantial difference, putting pressure on governments or other groups to reform their practices.

The link is that Witness is one of the recipients of funding from the company’s charitable donations.

While this strikes me as the most worthy of causes, I have mixed feelings about corporate flaunting of good deeds at events like this; PR and philanthropy make uncomfortable bedfellows.

Still, I am easily beguiled by Gabriel being a fan of his musical output. He didn’t talk much about music in his interview, except in saying that it is a great cross-cultural bridgebuilder. The other link is to do with pursuing your passions; thirty-five years ago he had a passion for music; now he has a passion for human rights (I’m interpreting something he said about pursuing your dreams).

His delivery was low-key and he looked almost elfin sitting up there on the stage.

Making sense of

The marketing pitch here at DreamForce Europe is wearying at times but it is not complete nonsense. CEO Marc Benioff spent the first hour of his keynote yesterday re-iterating what he has said 1000 times before about “no software”. The “no software” slogan is deceptive, since is a software platform; Benioff deliberately conflates multiple issues, including zero software deployment, cloud availability, and outsourced hardware maintenance.

The core of the model is multi-tenancy. One entity ( takes responsibility for your hardware and application server. Multiple entities (including you) get shared use of those resources, financed by a subscription. Originally this was a single CRM application; now it is called a platform (known as since you can build many types of application on that platform. Is this “software as a service”, or just a web application? It is both, especially since publishes a SOAP API and claims to be the largest users of SOAP in the world.

I asked Adam Gross, VP of developer marketing, whether the platform can also support REST; the answer is not really; you can create your own REST API to some extent, but authentication must be done through SOAP.

Developers can customize Salesforce or write their own applications (which is really the same thing) either by simple configuration, or writing code in APEX, which is a language created especially by and for Salesforce. Under the covers, I understand that Salesforce runs on Java and Oracle, (an upgrade to 10g is due later this year) so your APEX code ends up as Java byte code and queries Oracle; but this is hidden from the developer.

One of the interesting features of is that you can develop entirely online. You can also write APEX code in Eclipse. There is a sandbox facility for testing. Another idea is to create mashups which use web services to combine Salesforce applications with other web applications (just as Salesforce itself does with Google documents).

The next version of the platform, available shortly, includes VisualForce, a tag-based syntax for creating a custom web user interface. VisualForce uses a model – view – controller pattern.

The model has several attractions. It has inherent advantages. For example, hosted applications make more efficient use of hardware than on-premise servers. Another advantage is that rolling out a implementation is easier than introducing something like SAP. There is no hardware aspect to worry about, and the application is usable out of the box. Some of the customers I spoke to talked about failed or arduous implementations of SAP or Siebel systems.

As the customer base grows  – it is currently 41,000 customers and 1.1 million subscribers – it becomes a more attractive target for third party software vendors. You can market a custom Salesforce application through the official AppExchange, or create your own on-demand application and sell it to your own subscribers.

What then are the main reservations? Well, CEO Marc Benioff apparently has not read Chris Anderson’s essay on Free. As a customer, you have to be willing to pay a per-subscriber annual fee for ever. As a third-party vendor, you have to be willing to pay a proportion of your revenue for ever. Custom objects, custom language, custom UI tags: it won’t be easy to move away. This is proprietary lock-in reborn for the Web.

Second, if you use any hosted application platform you lose control. If you find yourself needing some new feature that the platform doesn’t implement, you have to ask nicely and wait in hope, or find some way to implement it using a mash-up or APEX code. If you can’t wrest the performance you want from the platform, you can’t upgrade the hardware or introduce a stored procedure: it is what it is. As an example, I’ve heard users here complain that the security system is insufficiently fine-grained; improvements are coming, but they have to wait.

Third, you have to trust with your data, and trust it to stay available. If you run your business on, and it goes offline, you may as well all go home. Now, arguably the guys at will work as hard or harder than your in-house team to keep systems up and running, and in most cases have more resources to work with, but nevertheless, it is a matter of trust.

Fourth, this is mainly a web application platform, though you can make offline applications or desktop applications using the API. The core user interface is functional rather than attractive, and I saw lots of flashing screens and browser messages saying “waiting for”. VisualForce AJAX components will help; though in practice business users do not care that much provided they get the results they want. Still, it’s a point worth noting; Microsoft argues that “software plus services” delivers a better user experience. The rejoinder is that “software plus services” removes key benefits of the software as a service model.

In the end, it comes down to a business case. It should be possible to sit down and calculate whether a move to for some part of an organization’s IT provision will cost money, or save money. The people I speak to here think it works for them.

Running a business on plus Google Adwords

At the Dreamforce Europe party this evening I took the opportunity to chat to some customers. Most were traditional CRM customers (and seemed happy on the whole), but one person I spoke to used the platform more extensively. His business repairs domestic appliances. The entire booking system runs on Salesforce; and they use a mashup with Google Maps to inform their engineers of upcoming jobs.

I was told that Google Adwords is the most effective advertising they do. They have done some fine-tuning in order to get the best results. If potential customers search for upmarket brands, the wording of the ad might emphasise professionalism, whereas for budget brands the wording might focus on value for money. They analyzed the results and have proved the benefits of these adjustments. They do not use the content network at all, as they only want to target customers actually searching for something related to their business.

Another twist: they like being able to switch off Adwords temporarily when they have too much work.

All of this has been achieved on a low budget, mostly by configuring Salesforce rather than writing code. Interesting.

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Marc Benioff: Google deal is aimed at a common enemy

Here at Dreamforce Europe, I asked CEO Marc Benioff about the company’s agreement with Google, in which Salesforce becomes an OEM for Google Apps. We saw this demonstrated in the keynote. You can start a email via  Gmail from within a Salesforce contact. When sent – provided you click the Salesforce send button and not the Gmail send button – the email is added to the contact history. A similar feature lets you attach a Google document to a Salesforce record.

It’s a useful feature; but long term, will and Google be competitors rather than partners? It is a natural question, since both companies are promoting their services as a platform for applications. Salesforce has the Apex programming language, while Google has its App Engine. According to Benioff, App Engine is primarily for Python developers, while is a platform for enterprise applications. This struck me as downplaying Google’s likely ambitions in the enterprise market.

I therefore asked Benioff whether the agreement with Google included any non-compete element, or whether Google might be a future platform competitor. He did not answer my question, but said:

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

The identity of the enemy is unspecified; but given that Benioff used Microsoft .NET as the example of what his platform is supposedly replacing, and that Google docs competes with Microsoft Office, and that Benioff makes constant jibes at the complexity and expense of developing for Windows, I guess we can draw our own conclusions.

For sure, it did little to allay my suspicion that and Google will not not always be as warm towards one another.

As an aside, there are ironies in Benioff’s characterization of .NET. Microsoft launched .NET as a “platform for web services”, which is exactly what has become. Microsoft was a key driver behind the standardization and adoption of SOAP, which is the main protocol in the API.