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Salesforce.com releases application development tools

Hosted CRM provider Salesforce.com has put aside its "end of software" mantra for a moment to help users build extensions to its online services with a new plan called sforce.

Responding to user demand for greater integration and extension capabilities, hosted CRM provider Salesforce.com has introduced its application development utility, dubbed Sforce.

San Francisco-based Salesforce.com created the tool in conjunction with Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Borland Software Corp. and BEA Systems Inc. with the promise of giving customers and software firms the ability to integrate Salesforce.com applications with other software.

An example of the new capability is already live within Salesforce.com itself. The company uses Sforce to link CRM to its internal financial software from Oracle Corp., said Parker Harris, senior vice president of research and development at Salesforce.com. The firm reported that the client-service utility is already being leveraged by 25 of its partners.

"Customers have been telling us they needed better methods to customize CRM and integrate our service with their legacy systems," Harris said. "We've been making our API available for over two years, but this is a better way of getting it out to the masses and letting people see the extended potential of our services."

Harris said the greatest benefit for users would be the ability to more quickly and cost-effectively build applications linked to Salesforce.com's hosted CRM services. For instance, one company has already created the ability to drag and drop customer account information into Salesforce.com system forms using Microsoft's Visual Basic programming language, he said. Others can use Microsoft Visual Studio, Borland JBuilder, BEA WebLogic Workshop and Sun's Java.

However, Harris admitted that Sforce would not give users the ability to customize tables within its existing services. He said that functionality would arrive sometime later this year, potentially as soon as October. The system does give customers the ability to add custom code to Salesforce.com. Harris pointed to developers building business intelligence dashboard technology that works with the company's software as an example of this capability.

"This is something they're doing that addresses the shortcomings of their hosted model," said Steve Bonadio, senior program director at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group. "Salesforce.com is getting beaten up by customers who want to create extensions or tackle integration."

He added that Sforce is a clever way for Salesforce.com to pitch its Enterprise Edition as a broader platform.

Sheryl Kingstone, senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Yankee Group, agreed that smaller companies probably would not be interested in Sforce.

"Clearly this is aimed at meeting customer demands for improved integration and capability to link Salesforce.com more tightly with back end systems like financials, which makes sense," she said.

Competitors in the rapidly growing hosted CRM space openly question how Sforce meshes with Salesforce.com CEO and founder Marc Benioff's unwavering mantra to "put an end to software" with hosted applications. Zach Nelson, CEO of hosted CRM vendor NetLedger Inc., in San Mateo, Calif., said he was surprised to see the release, given Benioff's established position.

"His whole mantra is 'no software,' and it seems to me he's telling people to write software," Nelson said. He added that Salesforce.com is trying to take a more integrated approach because it has yet to delivered its "mythical billing edition" service.

In response, Salesforce.com's Harris said that Sforce was not released in lieu of the company's billing software, which he expects to arrive in pieces. The first installment is due this fall, and the entire system should be available at the beginning of 2004, he said. The system is already being used to bill all Salesforce.com customers, and the company is working to apply it to various business models, according to Harris.

On the subject of encouraging companies to work with traditional software, rather than move completely to hosted applications such as Salesforce.com CRM, Harris recognized that there are realities that make the position necessary.

"We're still sold on the future of utility computing and the potential of hosted services," Harris said. "But there's the fact that users still work with traditional software and will continue to do so. Our offline edition is a great example of this, and we really want to make the whole picture as simple and affordable as possible."

Sforce is available for a deployment fee of $50 per end user per month and is free for existing users of the company's Enterprise Edition service.

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