Dreamforce 2017 - A black swan puzzle to be decoded

Denis Pombriant Profile picture for user denis_pombriant November 5, 2017
Attempting to predict the thrust of Dreamforce 2017 means understanding the mind of Marc Benioff and the black swan that is Salesforce. Here's one attempt.

Black Swan
Today Dreamforce 2017 kicks off. Although I get regular briefings from Salesforce, I won’t be getting a glimpse of what’s officially in store at the annual user meeting until shortly before the doors open. So that leaves plenty of room for speculation analysis.

Oracle steps up

Oracle stepped up its game over the last year, which provides a fresh challenge to Salesforce, the Magic Quadrant CRM leader, it hasn’t seen since Microsoft’s attempt to grab share a few years ago with a rejuvenated Dynamics. Predictably, Microsoft gained altitude, especially among its loyal accounting customer base, and today it is seen as one of the pack that is, mostly, chasing, Salesforce.

Similarly, Oracle is not exactly a new comer to the front office or to the cloud at this point and the company has done a great job of taking the fast follower route in most things oriented to the SaaS front office while it leads or competes well in database, infrastructure, and many areas of the back office.

So you see Oracle doing many of the things Salesforce pioneers, even including some naming conventions that run right up to the edge of Salesforce’s. I am not a marketing guru but each company has clouds, for example, including a sales cloud (however they decide to capitalize it) and lots of other clouds so much so that it’s hard to separate them at times. Some of the overlap comes from just being in the same market, some of it I am not sure.

But I think Oracle’s recent resurgence will give Salesforce a challenge that it has not seen in several years. In my analysis, it seems Oracle has aped Salesforce right down to cultural components. If you’re familiar with Oracle’s bare knuckles approach to the market, watching Oracle’s cultural conversion into being a company focused on customer success can be jarring, in a good way.

Dreamforce 2017 decoded

Last year the company announced Einstein its AI facility that it promptly said would be embedded into every Salesforce application. Efforts over that timespan have yielded an application set that is converted to serving up ideas based on data, for things like next best offer and the like. There’s a lot more to do in AI and machine learning so there will no doubt be more announcements in that vein.

I am also looking for a big emphasis on vertical applications like banking and finance, insurance, and healthcare for starters. The logic is simple. As a $10 billion company, Salesforce must continue to grow but appreciable growth won’t happen selling 100 seats at a time to a medium size business. We have already seen a shift in that direction with the 2016 emphasis on global brands and large scale deployments.

Selling many more seats will require teaming up with partners like Vlocity and nCino to provide running systems for the financial industry that are based on the platform. All this means that I expect Salesforce to make a set of announcements that focus on the large enterprise and the ISV partner.

We already have a sense of that. Colleague Stuart Lauchlan has the skinny on The 2022 Salesforce Economy – 3.3 million new jobs, $859 billion new revenues and you can be sure that Silicon Valley's Pied Piper, aka Marc Benioff, CEO Salesforce, will make the most of using that as the segue to parsing topics du jour such as platform, unemployment, STEM and, of course, the economic benefits that follow. But that's a side show. Of sorts.

Fleshing out the topics, announcements might take the form of new policies for support, training, and licensing. There are likely to be more training options via the popular Trailhead program, possibly making it easier for partners to use the Trailhead automated learning center to train on their own training needs.

At the same time, Salesforce seems to be making overtures to application development professionals. Its three-tier development environment includes no code, some code, and full coding environments that enable individuals to seek and find their own app-dev levels. The approach also seems to be a direct challenge to Oracle, which has a robust Java community.

IaaS, PaaS, SaaS

Speaking of challenges, one wonders how Salesforce will approach Oracle’s triple cloud solution set of IaaS, SaaS, and PaaS.

In some respects like infrastructure,  Salesforce doesn’t need an IaaS solution though it has offered ways to bring old code into the new cloud paradigm in the past. And the two companies take a very different approach to platform as a service with Oracle usually touting the benefits of its hardware set and Salesforce telling customers to basically relax because they’ve got it covered. The Salesforce platform is much more focused on app development and app support, not the intricacies of hardware and the software stack.

Salesforce will have to come up with some messaging to counter Oracle’s autonomous database announcements and this will be tricky, me thinks. Salesforce is one of Oracle’s largest customers and they do use some of Oracle’s storage hardware. No doubt they will also use the autonomous database when it becomes available later this year.

But Salesforce has also announced using Amazon AWS for quickly deploying data centers. That’s a smart move given the time and effort it takes to build and maintain data centers. But AWS is not Oracle and Larry Ellison has already poisoned the well, so to speak, in claiming the Oracle DB not only runs better and faster on Oracle gear, but also pointing out that Amazon doesn’t use his gear, at least at the moment. So we watch and wait.

My take

The one thing that we haven’t covered is Salesforce’s penchant for accelerated commoditization of its prior announcements. Fast followers glom onto last year’s Salesforce introductions while Marc Benioff announces mission already accomplished and skates on to even newer ice.

That’s what makes predicting Dreamforce such a black art. Salesforce is organic but far from linear. They are a black swan and even if you are acquainted with black swans, you'll still have a hard time predicting when or even if they will appear. Salesforce is the ultimate unknown unknown.

So what’s in store for Dreamforce will likely be a lot of ticking off accomplishments promised and now delivered. But the thing that attracts the attention of over 100,000 people to the event is what might be said. In retrospect it will seem obvious but in prospect, it’s a puzzle.

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