Opinion: Salesforce needs to realise it is not the loveable, fun start-up anymore

Most technology journalists look forward to Dreamforce. Unlike some of Salesforce's competitors, Benioff and his team know how to put on a show. From the bizarre opening keynote performances, which have in the past included the likes of MC Hammer and Neil Young, to the outlandish footwear, and the snide digs at other vendors, Salesforce has always known how to have fun.

It's a feisty event - one that usually separates Salesforce from the rest. A breath of fresh air in what is typically a year of dry, repetitive, suit-wearing, Vegas-based, IT events. However, this year something has changed. Although the elements are still there, all of a sudden Salesforce doesn't feel like that fun, start-up that is trying to fight for its place in the industry, pushing new innovative business models and exciting applications.

Instead, Salesforce is positioning itself as the platform of choice for next generation cloud applications. Salesforce 1, a mobile-first platform with an extensive suite of APIs to connect to, is Benioff's new bid to cement his company as the industry leader.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure he will. Becoming the platform of choice makes sense in many respects. It's exactly what the SAPs, Oracles, and Microsofts of the past have done to cement themselves in every enterprise across the world, which is precisely what I'm sure Salesforce has in its sights.

However, the problem with doing this is, well, it just makes Salesforce a little bit more boring. Platforms are essential, of course, and I have no doubt Salesforce will probably do it the best and gain the most traction with Salesforce 1 and its 'Internet of Customers', but the fundamentals of a platform are that they are stable and essentially support the more interesting stuff happening on top of them.

Take more recent examples on the mobile front – Android and iOS are the platforms of choice for most consumers and businesses out there today. Although there is a certain amount of interest when Google or Apple update their mobile platforms, is it really all that exciting? Apple recently gave us a nicer looking iOS with some better usability features and Google's KitKat will no doubt be an improvement on previous versions, but are we really all that excited? I would argue not.

What people and companies are interested in are the applications that are being built on top of these platforms. You just need to look at mobile applications that have been around for what feels like all of a second, and then are just as quickly being valued at billions and billions of dollars. Although those are consumer examples, they are applicable to the business world. Enterprises will be most interested and excited about the applications that are going to quickly solve a serious business problem for them – as Salesforce did previously with Chatter.

They will of course need the stable platform in place, but it isn't going to be the talking point that CIOs get enthusiastic about. That's the impression that I've been left with this year at Dreamforce – Benioff has largely spoken about the platform and has made less convincing arguments about the business problems being solved with applications. Well, that and its partnership with HP to create a Superpod – which again just doesn't feel very Salesforce. Yes it is still using the multi-tenant software, but no matter how much Benioff argues it, the Superpod is a recognition that some companies want their own hardware stack. All a bit more safe, all a little less risky.

Salesforce has no doubt made great strides in its industry and its customers seem to love the technology – the Benioff praise has been at an all-time high this year – but it is no longer the fun, exciting disrupter that we so much enjoyed in the past. And that's not a bad thing, it is a recognition that cloud is no longer a new technology, it has reached a level of maturity (just look at Salesforce's latest results). However, what it does mean is that Salesforce is now in the same category as the Oracles, SAPs, IBMs, Microsofts and so on.

What we now need to do is find the most exciting companies developing on top of Salesforce 1 – that's where the next wave of innovation will come from and that's what businesses will get excited about.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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