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Google and Salesforce: composite applications for better enterprise lift

Google, the giant in Web search, introduced a service that allows friends to "see" one another’s location on their respective mobile devices. The service, a component of Google’s social networking services, has different facets. The Latitude feature plots friends on a Google Map. The Connect feature makes it easy to join a community. Those new offerings keep Google in step with similar offerings from online vendors designed for the young and those young at heart. Google and Salesforce.com have taken an important step.

The two companies have used technologies that "glue together" different features, services and functions. Think of the application as a digital type of composite material. The aircraft industry uses composites to create materials with increased strength that are lighter and stronger than more traditional methods. Google and Salesforce.com have brought composite thinking to enterprise applications. But there’s another twist. The new applications, like an online game or the Apple iPhone Apps Store, run from the cloud, the "out there" on the network. In addition to lower costs and tighter control over the user experience, the out-there approach offers an alternative to the expensive, complex on-premises approach to enterprise software.

I think you know about Google, which has had a strong relationship with Salesforce.com, a company that assists professionals with what at first glance seems a routine task, managing the names and details of a client or prospect. As any working person knows, keeping information about contacts up to date requires considerable effort. The simplicity of jotting down an e-mail and keeping that information at hand is surprisingly complicated.

An industry has flourished around contacts, the buzzword used to refer to software system vendors that aim to keep a professional’s colleagues, partners and customers instantly available and current. Customer relationship management (CRM) is a multi-billion dollar business that has gained importance as the economic climate has deteriorated and competition has increased.

A typical CRM system manages names, addresses and telephone numbers. Over the last decade, the CRM systems have added functions that range from content management for proposals and e-mail to specialized software applications that generate analytic reports for individual users and their employers.

The complexity of the systems and pervasive network connections created an opportunity for an entrepreneur with a belief that CRM systems could be delivered from the cloud. Instead of installing a CRM system in a company’s data center, Marc Benioff founded Salesforce.com in 1999 and offered CRM services to organizations as a network service.

In the last decade, Salesforce.com achieved several benchmarks. First, the company proved that enterprise applications could be successfully delivered as a service. Today, most business professionals accept that approach, but a decade ago, the former Oracle executive’s idea was revolutionary. Second, Salesforce.com provided organizations with a way to keep track of contacts and sales-related information without having to pay the hefty licensing fees for the on-premises CRM systems from PeopleSoft (now Oracle), Lawson, J.D. Edwards (also now Oracle) and other vendors. By moving the software to a managed data center, Salesforce.com customers reduced the need for dedicated CRM data processing staff. Finally, Salesforce.com’s approach made it easy for a company to keep track of its employees’ sales activity.

When an employee left the company, the employer could make use of Salesforce.com’s security features so that important leads could be transferred to another employee and correspondence about a particular client could be kept in one digital archive.

In the last few years, Salesforce.com became one of the first companies to integrate Google’s services into the Salesforce.com system. The move was motivated as one way to differentiate Salesforce.com from its growing list of competitors. Software as a service and cloud-based computing have become major trends in enterprise computing and information management. Another reason is that Salesforce.com could offer its customers like Dell and Toyota browser-based applications that were available to any user with a mobile device and a network connection.

Rumors of Google’s interest in purchasing Salesforce.com, now a $1 billion publicly traded company, have circulated for several years. No buyout has taken place, but deeper integration of Google and Salesforce.com technology has. Salesforce.com illustrates one way in which next-generation enterprise vendors can expand their own line of products by delivering a fabric of technology quite different from on-premises software installations and from the original Salesforce.com approach.

Google technology within Salesforce.com provides a glimpse of what the future of enterprise software may look like. There are benefits and drawbacks to the approach. Google and Salesforce.com rolled out an enterprise solution that combines Google geospatial technology, Salesforce.com CRM functions and browser technology to create a fluid information access experience. The solution combines visualization, data from multiple sources and mobile access in a way that mimics the type of computing experience once limited to game enthusiasts.

According to Google, the new solution is "a clever mashup of the new Google Earth browser plug-in and Geocoding APIs that maps and displays the location of objects in your Salesforce.com org in Earth."

In a nutshell, mapping happens for accounts and non-account objects like the opportunities or custom objects found in the Salesforce CRM application. The Salesforce.com "object" is a snippet of software that holds location information. That object can then be linked to any object in the system, such as a request for proposal from Los Alamos National Laboratory or a three-person law firm. The Geo Location object can automatically look up data and make it available with a click. The interface is not a search box and a traditional laundry list of search results. The user interacts with a live map.

The application also has a geocoding feature that will perform a pass across all the account addresses in your system and create the location objects. It uses the AJAX libraries provided by Google to generate the geocode locations and then uses the Force.com Visualforce AJAX features to store them into the Location objects. A Salesforce.com administrator can create custom pop-up balloons to display specific information such as the names and phone numbers of a contact or other information within the Salesforce.com system for that client.

The programming required for this type of dynamic mashup system (also called a hybrid or composite application) is brief and similar to the scripts written for a standard Web page. The script includes an optimization step to speed the delivery of the composite application to the Salesforce.com user’s browser. With a standard mobile device connection, the user experiences a quick and fluid display with pop-ups and scrolling available, as if the application were running on the user’s computing device.

When I first saw that application running on a Google Android device, I thought I was looking at an iTunes-type of application. After a closer look, I realized I was viewing an enterprise application, with the full CRM functionality available at a mouse click. Employees comfortable with online gaming and the slick interfaces of online media services will find the Google - Salesforce.com composite application familiar and intuitive.

Even old-timers like me will appreciate the ability to tap and click as a time-saver—instead of typing commands or scrolling through long menus of option. The major benefit is that information from different sources is put in one, easy-to-grasp display. The approach eliminates the hassle of looking up information in several places. The Google - Salesforce.com innovation delivers a solution, not more work for the business professional.

There are downsides. First, an organization has to shift from the traditional on-premises approach to CRM and information management. Second, the sales professionals and other authorized users require network access and, in some cases, mobile devices that can render graphics. More importantly, management must be willing to rethink how enterprise applications are delivered to employees. Cloud-based solutions offer organizations a way to manage information in a fundamentally different way. For the foreseeable future, traditional on-premises information management systems will dominate. Over time, more cloud-based solutions will become available and a migration will occur.

With cost advantages, light weight and dynamic content, the composite application from Google and Salesforce.com makes the future of enterprise information management clear. The days of the mainframe-influenced approach to enterprise information might be numbered. The difference is easy to visualize. Think about a World War I biplane parked next to a modern fighter. That is the scale of difference between traditional enterprise applications and the newer composites.

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