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Dreamforce 2010 Summary

Note #1: This is not the second part of the comparison article between RightNow Technologies and Salesforce.com. I’ll write that next.

Note #2: A disclosure. As with most conferences, the host (in this case Salesforce.com) paid for my flight, lodging, a few meals, and some entertainment.

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends

This year marked the 8th annual Dreamforce conference, a gathering of Salesforce.com partners, customers, and observers at the Moscone Center in San Francisco to see what the software-as-a-service pioneer is up to. This year was the largest one yet, as attendance has risen steadily with the growth of the company and its influence. when I first attended in 2005, I think there were 6,400 attendees; this year there were more than 30,000.

I’ll get this part out of the way, because it’s subjective and because I’ve said it before: Marc Benioff (the founder and CEO, for the three people reading this who didn’t know that) is a heck of a showman. Many vendor conferences are built around the idea of news and advances, but Dreamforce is always about energy and enthusiasm. There’s plenty of news here too, but the first order of business is to get the crowd fired up. The exact same company-product-service would likely not have achieved its current level of success in somebody else’s hands, because Marc knows how to play to the crowd and to the media. He also knows business and software, so it’s not like he’s just a pretty face, but he leads with his personality.

So what happened?

There were four main announcements to come out of Dreamforce ’10, at least from Salesforce itself—the show has become too big for any one person to have a realistic hope of covering all the partners. Of the four, two were what I would call minor (changes to existing relationships or services) and two major (new ventures). We’ll hit the former first.

First thing was showing off full integration of Jigsaw, a provider of crowdsourced contact data for businesses which Salesforce acquired in April of this year for $142 million. Jigsaw was formerly a Salesforce partner, and its app integrated fairly well with Salesforce CRM, but the combined entity is a step up. Jigsaw data automatically populates the fields, so blank lines in a contact record should be a rare thing. Users can provide new or updated information to the system, so there’s no need to separately maintain it—your contact records are the world’s contact records, at least insofar as you make them public.

The second minor bit was the introduction of Chatter Free. Chatter is Salesforce’s social networking service that allows your employees to communicate in a secure Facebook-like environment. The free version is—you guessed it—free, and allows Salesforce users to invite any colleague to join whether or not they use Salesforce themselves.

Up to the majors

The previous two announcements definitely matter to Salesforce and those who use it, but the following two will be what drive speculation and interest for the next few months. Therefore, I’ll devote more space and detail to them. (What, you didn’t think I was writing a short blog, did you?)

There’s a new cloud in town, and its name is database. Database.com is a standalone open-standards database in the cloud. The PR copy says it can run on any platform, in any programming language, on any device. It’s a relational database that can swallow both structured and unstructured data, and can serve as the backbone for apps in use by many thousands of users simultaneously. And it’s secure down to individual rows.

Salesforce can claim this because database.com has been in beta for the past 11 years—it’s the productized version of the database used to power Salesforce.com itself. There’s no sense in me listing all the features it promises, so here a link to the database.com FAQ. It’s getting a push from early-adopter pricing as well: The first 100,000 records are free, as are the first 50,000 transactions per month, for up to three users (the ones who actually work with the database). After that, it’s $10/user/month, plus $10/month increments for each 100,000 records or 150,000 transactions.

You might think the big deal here is the reasonable pricing, or the fact that Salesforce is opening itself up for somebody to make a competing product using its own infrastructure. What I think is most telling is the open standards. Salesforce has resisted open source and open standards for years, claiming its own APEX development language was open enough, being similar to Java and freely available to anybody who wished to develop apps for it.

Users and critics still clamored for the option to use actual Java, or PHP, or some other open-standards development language, and now Salesforce has conceded. This means anybody can write Salesforce apps, or port existing code into it. The barrier to entry has never been lower.

[UPDATE: I’ve been informed by Denis Pombriant of Beagle Research Group that database.com doesn’t support SQL and doesn’t run on any platform other than its own servers in the cloud. This is important information which I missed, so thanks.]

Big Deal Number Two is the announcement of intent to acquire a company named Heroku for $212 million. If your first response is “So what?” then don’t feel bad—I felt the same way until I read deeper. Programming languages and development platforms aren’t my specialty, but this is big.

Heroku is the leading development platform for apps built in Ruby, the language at the heart of many popular social media cloud apps. You may have heard of some of these apps: Hulu, Twitter, and Groupon are the three easiest to pick out of the 105,000 created via Heroku.

Let me be crystal clear about the significance of these two announcements. Salesforce.com is making its own on-demand database technology—which supports its own service and everything on AppExchange—available to anybody with the smarts to type some code. It also has acquired the favorite development tool of some of the farthest-reaching social media apps in the world. In essence, Salesforce.com has just turned itself into a fire hose that sprays the future of cloud computing.

If nothing else had happened this week, this would still have been enough. I’d like to point out that it’s not all business over at Salesforce.com, and call some attention to the philanthropic efforts of the company. Marc Benioff is a firm believer in the 1/1/1 philosophy, donating one percent of Salesforce.com’s equity, time, and products/services to good causes—something that really adds up with a billion-dollar-plus organization. The current project is working with UCSF, including endowing a children’s hospital [UPDATE: I should have mentioned this was with his own money] and building a new research campus. Good stuff.

Tune in later this week (or early next, because I’m a little busy) to see part two of my message comparison between Salesforce.com and RightNow Technologies.