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Cloudforce brings social networking Chatter to the fore

Last week, held a CloudForce event here in Boston.  They have already been through Washington DC, and they’ll be making their way across the nation.  As Barney Beal reports, Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff proclaimed that the company is moving beyond cloud computing and into the “social enterprise.” I understand why Salesforce would want to call their new initiatives, based on social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook, a “social enterprise,” but Wikipedia tells me that name is already taken. But I digress…

I found Bennioff’s assertions about the future of enterprise computing both entertaining and inspiring, but a little bit vague on the details. He was absolutely right about a lot of what he was telling the enterprise marketers to do. We need to be more open, more democratic, and better connected. I was really impressed by his vision for Toyota Friend, a private social network for owners of Toyota automobiles that lets the cars and their owners interact on a somewhat personal level. (Bennioff’s answer to IBM’s Volt?)

But how are those goals going to be realized? After the keynote, I got some answers from Salesforce VP Peter Coffee, head of platform research.  “Everyone knows that when the CEO asks what’s going on with the cloud, you better have an answer,” he told me, “Now, the same is going for social networking.” He cited marketing examples like Pepsi Refresh and Toyota Friend as potential differentiators that make social networking an imperative.

From the technical side, Coffee filled me in on three important points about the new Chatter system that’s enabling networks like Toyota Friend. First, he said that Chatter is not just a social networking app that can be deployed behind the firewall. According to Coffee, Chatter adds social networking functionality like feeds and profiles to existing enterprise applications.

Second, Coffee assured me that “Chatter is not a walled garden. Anything with an API can participate in Chatter interactions.” That means if your server monitoring software (for example) has an output API, it can potentially warn you proactively about common situations before they turn into big problems.

Thirdly, Coffee explained the new messaging model that Chatter is based on. According to Coffee, Chatter breaks down the barriers that currently exist in most organizations between documents and messages. Chatter has a content library with versioning management that employees can link to in an update similar to the way that they would on Facebook. But instead of going out to the entire organization, the update goes out to others who are following the project/customer/document/tags/whatever that are associated with that update. It’s supposed to make creating interoffice communications a similar experience to posting on Facebook or Twitter, which people already like to do.

Coffee claims that people demonstrably prefer this type of communication, when it’s properly implemented. He warns against allowing a social network to become just another silo and posits that one of the important keys for successful service integration is enabling abstract entities like accounts and documents to start conversation threads, using complex event processing in the background.

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