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Can will.i.am make cloud computing cool?

Entertainer makes cameo at Salesforce.com event

Will.i.am at Dreamforce
Tech CEOs often incorporate pop or rock music into their keynotes and so it was with Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, that he strode onstage at San Francisco's Moscone Center Tuesday at the Dreamforce 2010 conference to the Black Eyed Peas’ “Own It” from their new CD. Then Benioff pointed to the group’s front man, will.i.am, in the front row of the audience (see photo) and asked “What do you think of the cloud?”

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Cloud computing is the current “it” technology in the industry and, like the music business, employs its share of hype. But as Salesforce tries to position itself as the leader in software-as-a-service (SaaS) and platform-as-a-service (PaaS), against such companies as Microsoft, Benioff is employing a bit of showmanship to make his point. So will.i.am, wearing both his musician and tech industry consultant hats, answered that “The cloud for me is the now and the future.”

“I can have thousands of people collaborating with me in the cloud, people anywhere who will be able to hear my songs in real time and influence that,” he said.

However, it’s somewhat ironic that Benioff chose “Own It” as his keynote’s theme song because its lyrics, “wanna own it, wanna wanna own it,” are the exact opposite of the concept of cloud computing, which is that you don’t own the software Salesforce delivers to you, you rent it.

Benioff also linked Salesforce to the other hot trend in tech, social media, unveiling a suite of six products that together deliver what the company calls “Cloud 2” to the enterprise. Its sales force automation, customer relationship management and support, and a new database-in-the-cloud offering all incorporate social media features mimicking those of Facebook. Sales Cloud 2, for instance, incorporates Salesforce’s Chatter platform for real time collaboration with a user interface similar to Facebook’s where a user can pose a question to their community in the hopes of getting an answer that will help close the deal with a sales prospect. Likewise, Service Cloud 2 uses the social network to answer customer support questions.

Of course, Salesforce cloud apps have to integrate with legacy applications on premise, said Kraig Swensrud, senior vice president of marketing at Salesforce, who described Sales Cloud 2’s integration with Microsoft Outlook. Salesforce also introduced Database.com, its first delivery of database access as a cloud offering, which will need to integrate with such on-premise systems as Microsoft SQL Server, as well as database systems from Oracle and IBM.

But Salesforce will also have to not just integrate, but compete with Microsoft’s cloud offerings, including Dynamics CRM Online, Office 365, Windows Azure, SQL Azure and Lync. For predominantly Microsoft shops, the temptation for customers to stick with a brand they know would be compelling.

Still, with 87,200 customers and recently reported third quarter revenue up 30 percent to $429 million, Salesforce, like the Black Eyed Peas, has a hit on its hands.

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