Salesforce.com gets social

December 3, 2009: 8:02 AM ET

CEO Benioff goes from "cloud" to crowd.

Benioff chats about Chatter. Photo: Salesforce.com

Marc Benioff, the man who invented cloud computing at least as much as Al Gore invented the Internet, is pushing a new idea. It's called Chatter, a mashup of Facebook and Twitter for the workplace that his company, Salesforce.com (CRM), plans to begin selling next year.

Salesforce.com's main product is something most worker bees will never see. It's an online tool that salespeople use to record their prospects and completed deals. It has done so well because it mimics far more expensive software pioneered by Siebel Systems, which is now owned by Oracle (ORCL), where Benioff began his career. Benioff, a relentlessly effective marketer, pioneered the concept that companies could rely on Web applications for what previously had been complicated software programs that resided on corporate computers. Salesforce.com is so successful (and popular with investors) that it's worth $8 billion, a mere 100 times Wall Street's estimated earnings for the company's current fiscal year.

The reason Benioff is jazzed about Chatter is that it represents an opportunity for everyone in the corporate world to use Salesforce.com software, not just salespeople. Chatter gives all employees the ability to broadcast and tune in to people in their own company, much in the way the two buzziest social-media sites enable communication among groups of like-minded people and, more specifically, their friends. "Twitter and Facebook have opened the door to the enterprise world to  walk through," says Benioff.

I saw Benioff Wednesday at his San Francisco office, where a couple of his people -- he has lots of them -- gave me a demo of Chatter. In short, I was impressed. It allows users to post their corporate activities as well as to choose whose activities in the company they want to follow. The key is that it's a walled garden. You only follow or broadcast to colleagues. In effect, Chatter does what IBM's Lotus Notes and Microsoft's Sharepoint do, only Chatter is far more flexible, and, at the risk of sounding silly, fun.

The corporate possibilities  are many. People involved in a specific deal can form a group. An embedded Twitter application makes it easy to track comments about competitors -- or your own company. Routine business events, like purchasing data, could be posted online, but shared only with employees who have permission to view it. The allure is that all these  concepts work within an easy-to-use online tool that's already been around for a decade and has been refined accordingly.

I have no idea if customers will cotton to this idea, and, more importantly, if they'll pay. (Existing Salesforce.com users will get Chatter for free. Salesforce.com will try selling a Chatter-for-the-rest-of-us edition for $50 per user per month.) It looked cool to me, though.

I tend to squirm at the request LinkedIn makes of me to update my profile with information about what I'm doing. There's no way I'm telling my competitors what I'm doing. Ditto for Facebook, where my "friends" are an assorted lot that may not care about my work. Twitter gives me a way to communicate to strangers, which I appreciate, but I'm going to be guarded in how much I share with that audience. Would I post to a select group of Fortune editors and writers, however, what story I'm pursuing and who my next meeting is with? Might it improve communication for a distributed team whose left hand often doesn't know what the right hand is doing? Absolutely.

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About This Author
Adam Lashinsky
Adam Lashinsky
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Adam Lashinsky is a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for FORTUNE, covering Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Lashinsky joined FORTUNE in 2001, after two years as a contributing columnist. Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky covered Silicon Valley for TheStreet.com and The San Jose Mercury News. A Chicago native, Lashinsky holds a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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