SAN FRANCISCO -- Salesforce.com opened its first user conference amid wintry trappings that included fake snowflakes, Christmas music and a Santa Claus appearance, but the two new releases described by CEO Marc Benioff received anything but a frosty reception from the 800-plus users in attendance.
Salesforce.com set the stage to launch its Winter '04 release, the latest version of its hosted CRM software. It will be available in two weeks. Among the features highlighted during Benioff's presentation were a dashboard view that sums up all the information in the Salesforce.com database and allows users to generate easy-to-create graphs, a contracts view that integrates contract information into the Salesforce.com Web interface, and a workflow administrator that can help schedule and trigger different actions in Salesforce.com based on various situations and drag-and-drop page layout customization.
One of the bigger reactions from users came during a demonstration of the language-switching functionality available in Winter '04. "We have a division in Japan, and I am really excited about the potential to change languages on the fly," said Mari Sun, a developer with Waterford, Wis.-based Edstrom Industries Inc.
As a developer, Sun was also impressed by the customization APIs available in the latest version of Salesforce.com's application server, which was announced at the show. Sforce 2.0, which builds on customization capabilities introduced earlier this year, adds custom objects, new workflow controls, programming controls for building user interfaces on popular platforms and simplifications in querying objects through the API.
According to Salesforce.com director of product marketing Kaiser Mulla-Feroze, third-party software vendors and a growing number of end-user companies are using Sforce.
Both Edward Amaty, an IT manager at Trademark Plastics Corp., in Linden, N.J., and Jay Kalpathy of NetLine Corp. in Santa Cruz, Calif., said that the ability to customize would help user adoption in their organizations. Another user thought that the new customization capabilities might afford his company some new opportunities.
"We have a hybrid CRM system -- Salesforce.com and PeopleSoft. Not saying we would, but [the customization API] does give us the option [to consolidate]," said Greg Stasko, a sales engineer for DataDirect Technologies Inc., in Rockville, Md.
Intent on keeping organizations from abandoning the hosted model in favor of more easily customized in-house CRM software, Salesforce.com has made its APIs available to customers, complete with documentation, and even offered to host users' customized code within the Sforce 2.0 Application Server service. To facilitate this customization, Salesforce.com has partnered with Web Services toolmakers BEA Systems Inc. and Borland Software Corp., as well as Microsoft.
"Personally, I was really surprised to see all those competitors working together," said attendee Ed Schlesinger of the Barkoe Group.
Aside from the product release hype, presiding over its first user conference enabled Salesforce.com to outline some of its core beliefs at a time when the hosted CRM software market is growing more competitive. Last month, on-premise CRM software leader Siebel Systems Inc. announced its own hosted CRM offering and acquired one of Salesforce.com's top competitors, UpShot Corp.
Salesforce.com said it will continue releasing updates three times a year, following the seasonal pattern established with Winter '04. The next upgrade is schedule for next spring.
Another Salesforce.com theme that struck a cord with users was the company's commitment to philanthropy. Salesforce.com gives 1% of its equity, employee time and profits to charity and has established the nonprofit Salesforce.com Foundation.
When asked what impressed her most about the conference, Trella Davis, manager of marketing and knowledge management at Deloitte & Touche LLP, mentioned the company's charitable pursuits.
"I was really struck by Salesforce.com's commitment to philanthropic pursuits," she said.
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