OPINION

Harbingers of a Revolution

It’s hard to avoid comparisons between Microsoft and Salesforce.com this week. While many see a zero sum game being played out in which Google plus Salesforce.com somehow equals a diminished Microsoft, I think there’s more.

Late last week, Microsoft announced a new product, the Surface computer, occupying a category all its own. At the same time, Salesforce.com and Google announced Tuesday they had formed a partnership in which the two would join ranks to offer a blend of products that would most likely challenge part of Microsoft’s dominant position in desktop applications.

Head Turners

First, if you aren’t aware of it yet, Microsoft Surface is a computer that looks like a coffee table, and it links together different digital devices to enable users to easily access and swap their data. Check out this short video atYouTube if you need more details on how it works.

I think Cray was the last company to build a computer that resembled a piece of furniture, but it doesn’t look like Microsoft was trying to imitate a supercomputer with the Surface. Nonetheless, the Surface promises to turn a few heads and possibly ignite interest in a new generation of consumer computers.

Salesforce.com and Google, on the other hand, announced that they were joining forces to offer to the SMB (small and medium-sized business) market sales and marketing capabilities that larger companies usually pay quite a lot for.

The first product will involve a mash-up of Google AdWords and SFA (sales force automation) so that users can get instant notification of leads, make relevant updates to the database and take the necessary action. You might recall that within the last year, Salesforce.com bought an AdWord startup to bring this functionality to its core product. This announcement specifically brings AdWord marketing to the SMB space with an attractive price point.

This is only the first of what you might expect will be many products that Google and Salesforce.com bring out that play to each company’s strengths — Salesforce.com offers a growing variety of compelling applications and Google sells advertising and serves up information.

The combination strengthens the overused definition of utility computing wherein computing services are delivered through a wall plug, just like electric power, and adds a twist. Utility computing is starting to look a bit like TV in its golden age when programs were free and ads were what paid the bill.

Getting Us Over the Hump

In each case, we see major technology companies building elegant products for their end customers that offer such sophistication that any knowledge of how computers work, or how applications link together, is almost unnecessary.

Salesforce.com and Google have hidden a lot of complexity in this mash-up and those that will undoubtedly follow so that small companies can play big. At the same time, Microsoft did a smart thing in turning the computer 90 degrees: by changing perspectives, it has transformed the utility of the computer from personal productivity to information aggregator and collaboration center.

What I think each offering has in common is that neither is a radical departure — such as the invention of the PC or even the iPod, or, to carry the analogy further, the release of the first on-demand application — but that’s to be expected at this point in the evolution of the technology market. People like me might bemoan the lack of more disruptive innovation, but hopefully not too much.

Renewal in Desktop Productivity

A great deal of money can be made in this phase of the market, as vendors that survive all the early adopter madness land on Geoffrey Moore’s Main Street to sell commodity products to consumers hungry for something that just plain works and makes their lives better — without a lot of complexity.

Salesforce and Google may have stolen a march on Microsoft with their mash-up because it is so open ended in terms of what it can deliver right to the heart of Microsoft’s cash cow application business.

This mash-up represents a renewal, of sorts, for desktop productivity, which has grown stale and cumbersome with too many layers of complexity. The choice of the SMB market makes a great deal of sense, too, since it is small companies that provide so much innovation. Taken in the context of the AppExchange, the Idea Exchange and Salesforce.com’s incubator, this mash-up is a harbinger of a revolution in desktop computing.

New Future in Computing

At the same time, and for different reasons, the Surface also points to a new future in computing. The Surface is an important computer form factor that has not existed until now. The example application Microsoft is using to promote the product will look trivial shortly as businesses demand — and hopefully get — larger, perhaps even whiteboard-sized, Surfaces they can use for collaboration and innovation. Imagine a whiteboard networked with your company’s vast data stores and the Internet.

Forty years ago, when we were racing to the moon, NASA engineers would convene meetings to fill up whiteboards and then take Polaroid pictures of their work so that they could remember it in detail and take it home. What might we accomplish with a tool like the Surface?


Denis Pombriant runs the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].


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