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Survival instinct drives Salesforce's Java embrace

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Structure 2010 There's trouble at the top for Salesforce.com - and software developers are to blame.

Once riding the bow-wave of Silicon Valley's trends with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), the company's opening it's proprietary heart to keep pace with the latest big new thing: cloud computing.

Chief executive Marc Benioff told Structure 2010 he's making a "big bet" by bringing Java into his hosted platform that has been a closed coding environment.

Salesforce.com last month announced VMforce, with VMware, to host Spring- and Tomcat-based Java applications on the Force.com service - like Heroku but for Java.

"We have to transform," Benioff told the San Francisco conference. "We're moving this forward because if you don't move forward you are going to get left behind."

Benioff claimed Salesforce is spending more than half its R&D reworking its core platform to cater to Java and also Chatter, the company's collaboration application launched this week. The core platform is based on an Oracle database and Salesforce's proprietary but "Java-like" Apex language.

Benioff's not the only one sweating - so, too, is Salesforce's new partner, VMware.

VMware chief executive Paul Maritz, speaking at the same event after Benioff, conceded he's worried about whether we are at the tail end of one generation of computing or the beginning of another and - if we are - whether VMware is missing out.

VMware made it's "big bet" a year ago by writing a "big check" - $362m in cash and stock - to buy SpringSource. VMware wants to work closely with developers using frameworks for application portability in a world of virtual machines in data centers running clouds.

"We got a lot of hard work ahead of us at the infrastructure level," Martiz claimed.

Salesforce, like VMware, is not exactly in trouble in terms of raw size and business performance. Since Benioff launched Salesforce.com in 1999, the company's notched up 70,000 customers - not bad considering it's been up against giants such as Oracle and Siebel in the enterprise, and battling an array of incumbents in what's commonly called the "mid-market."

Success, though, is founded on a customer base of non-technical suits and managers who care about or use line-of-business applications like CRM - in the early days, Salesforce provided the low-cost, easy-to-use alternative to software like Oracle and Sibel.

When it's come to customizing Salesforce and developing apps running on the platform, Salesforce's shtick has been to provide simplified programming with a drag-and-drop environment. That uses Apex so the suits didn't get snared in a thicket of curly brackets and command lines.

Salesforce might as well have lived on a different planet as far as the coders working with Java, PHP or even .NET is concerned.

Now, Salesforce's seen opportunity in hosting applications from those who've typically overlooked hosted CRM and SaaS. Java's been largely overlooked by cloud services providers.

It's also recognized the risk to its future inherent in being wedded to a single language not used by the coding world at large. Adding Java to Salesforce means coders inside existing and new customers can update and maintain their Salesforce applications. That openness is important as customers challenge the idea of relying on an external service that they cannot control or modify to the extent they want, and that does not let them move their data.

"We've been growing and working really hard for eleven-and-a-half years, but we have to work harder and go faster and make a bigger change," Benioff said.

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