Shortly before Salesforce.com's Dreamforce conference started last Wednesday, the San Francisco Fire Department had locked the doors to Moscone Center to let the crush of bodies entering it disperse before letting in more attendees. I thought, are you kidding me? All this for a mid-size software company? But as I talked to attendees over the next few days, I began to understand what was stoking such enthusiasm I haven't seen in years in the enterprise software industry.I suppose some of the attendees came to witness the curiosity that is CEO Marc Benioff, who channeled an odd combination Anthony Robbins, Bob Barker and Yogi Bear as he paced the Dreamforce stage for hours last week, more marketing character than person. But the real enthusiasm wasn't about Benioff, and to some degree, wasn't even about Salesforce CRM, which, ironically, is where the company makes most of its money.
The enthusiasm was about Force.com, Salesforce.com's cloud computing platform: developers write apps using Salesforce's programming language and tools, and those apps run in Salesforce's data centers. Force.com is the leading example of the next phase of software-as-a-service, where the best opportunities lay not in the SaaS apps you can subscribe to, but in what you can build to run on hosted platforms.
Now, Force.com is still more about opportunity than reality-among the 15,000 Dreamforce attendees, at least as many were hoping to make money off of it, by writing apps and selling subscriptions to them to other businesses, than there was those serious about building apps for their own companies. But so what. Although most of the world still thinks of Salesforce.com as a CRM compay, what's important about the crush of people pushing into Moscone is that most were there because they had discovered, or had others tell them, how easily and quickly one could build apps on Force.com. I heard this over and over from attendees.
Salesforce.com likes to tout that over 100,000 custom apps have been built on Force.com and 200,000 developers are members of its community, but those numbers are difficult to substantiate-they could mean anything. What's more important are the stories.
Wednesday morning, I joined cloud computing consulting startup Appirio (which has grown to 150 employees in three years, all on Force.com consulting and development deals), and some of its customers for breakfast. I sat next to Dick Escue, CIO of RehabCare. Escue is a no-nonsense Tennessean, who I sense sees through the Salesforce.com marketing circus and takes away only what's valuable to him and his organization. This is what this quiet, understated CIO said about Force.com: "I can't underestimate how transformative this was to our business."
Here's the deal: RehabCare CEO John Short told Escue that he wanted his team to build a patient admission app for clinicians, and it had to be mobile. Oh, and he had to do it without making any additional investments in IT infrastructure. After reviewing many options, Escue's team created a prototype iPhone app in four days that runs on the Force.com platform, using a few days of consulting help from Appirio. (I was repeatedly told by users that Salesforce.com's Apex language is easy to learn.) RehabCare's first version of the app wasn't perfect, "but that was okay, we decided, because we could quickly rebuild it," Escue said. He paused for a moment, and an incredulous looked passed over his face. "We'd never had that kind of conversation before."
By comparison, Escue estimates it would've taken his developers six months to build a similar mobile app using .Net. About 400 clinicians now use the app, downloading it from Apple's iTunes store.
I heard more stories like this-people explaining how fast and cheaply they or their staffers built an app on Force.com. In most cases these were fairly simple, function-specific apps and not "business critical" ones, but those are exactly the kinds of apps businesses want to build cheaply and quickly, with no or little infrastructure investments.
I've been around the software industry long enough to know that when you see that sort of enthusiasm around a conference, there's something to pay attention to. It's wise to be wary about Salesforce.com's healthy market machine, and Force.com isn't the only option for what's sometimes called a platform-as-a-service, and more are coming. (Microsoft's Azure is set to go live in January.) It's also unclear how much money Salesforce.com is making off of Force.com, but who cares; that's an issue between Marc Benioff and his investors.
What's important is that people are very enthusiastic over this idea of a cloud computing platform, and a crush of 15,000 people at the Moscone Center last week proves it.