The Salesforce.com Summer '07 release is all about the platform, with software-as-a-service evolving to platform-as-a-service, a move that will antagonise and incentivice big league players Microsoft, SAP, and Oracle.
"We are looking to push the next wave of on-demand... we are launching platform as a service, which is mainly about the ability to build any application on our platform," said Tim Knight, technical director AppExchange EMEA. "You can build any complex business process on the platform and deliver it as an application service."
With this release, due in August, the company is shooting straight for the large enterprise market. "It is all aimed at enterprise IT organisations who want to build applications for their users," said Knight.
While the application development potential of Apex itself is the most obvious enterprise-enticing addition, support for multiple sandboxes as opposed to a single sandbox that allow organisations to develop, test, and train in a non-production environment is also a key extension. Organisations that wish to take advantage of this feature will have to pay an additional fee but the price tag has not been revealed.
Another significant addition is Enterprise Intelligent Workflow which allows customers to create complex rules and approvals by building formulas into workflows. This capability is important in terms of enabling complex back-office operations, for example, because it allows actions to be fired off on the back of workflow rules for anything from complex case assignment to price discount approvals.
The use of rules also means operations can be completely customised.
"Balancing the books to currency conversion in ERP lends itself to Apex-style coding," said Knight. Intelligent workflow is not an alternative to Apex but it does provide choice in terms of workflow creation and the point-and-click environment is aimed at business analysts who do not have coding skills.
Although the platform was the core of the Summer '07 release, the company did pay attention to its roots by adding further CRM functionality. The CRM service is still the means by which the company drives up its subscriber numbers, so it has to keep relevant new functionality flowing.
The new release introduces the search-based Mobile User Interface that allows users to search for contacts, accounts, and opportunities, plus other information from the main screen. Results are delivered in a navigable list grouped by category. In addition, users can access reports through Salesforce Mobile for the first time.
There is also support for rich content. Using the solution knowledge base in Salesforce Service & Support, users can illustrate solutions with diagrams, pictures, and other rich content by creating solutions using HTML. A custom report wizard enables users to create custom reports rather than tinkering via the standard report wizard.
The last major CRM functional addition is a collaborative customer portal that enables organisations to deliver a branded 24x7 self-service portal that can be customised for different users.
Salesforce.com's services have always been front-office-heavy and that is one of the reasons it has been considered less strategic and more functionally limited than Oracle and SAP. One of the proof points for Apex will be whether partners use it to develop back-office applications, such as heavy-duty ERP or realtime transactional e-commerce applications, rather than just CRM extensions.
Although the on-demand platform and programming language puts back-office on-demand applications within reach, it remains to be seen how and when they will be taken up at the large enterprise level.
The move into the enterprise market, especially if back-office Apex-built applications take off, will put Salesforce.com into direct competition with SAP and Oracle. Although Salesforce.com has eaten into their sales, it has been in the highly fragmented small and mid-sized business sector, an area where they are still developing their strategies and where there is no clear leader.
With this release Salesforce.com is trying to enter their core market of large enterprise and that is not something SAP or Oracle will take well to.
Salesforce.com might be the first to deliver an on-demand platform but it certainly will not be the only one, and the on-demand specialist is starting to feel Microsoft's breath.
Releasing snippets of information about the forthcoming Titan offering at its partner conference last week, Microsoft chief, Steve Ballmer, said Titan referred to a CRM application-development platform on which developers would be able to build customised applications that could run on their servers or on Microsoft's own servers.
Although the Microsoft offering is not yet available, and even after launch it will take time for some of the planned functionality to be available such as running custom user applications within the Microsoft data centre, it will be a direct challenge to Salesforce.com.
With similar platform offerings, users will have a choice for the first time, which has the potential to cut into Salesforce.com's growth.