Salesforce.com, a hosted online package that has been ruthlessly promoted as defining the end of software, just went offline. With a browser-based offline version of its CRM and SFA solution, Salesforce.com Inc. has filled a gap in its bid to tackle the enterprise market—and does so without requiring additional software to be installed on each client system.
In eWeek Labs exclusive evaluation of Salesforce.coms Offline Edition, now in limited release to major customers, we found the client piece almost seamlessly bridges the gap between Salesforce.coms online Enterprise Edition and disconnected mobile employees in the field. It is the first business application software we know of that allows users to operate offline with no changes to the interface or kludgy client-side databases required.
Enterprise Edition costs $125 per user per month, and the client piece is included in the cost. Salesforce.com should be less expensive than competing packages from Interact Commerce Inc., Onyx Software Corp. and Siebel Systems Inc., whose pricing is geared toward maintenance contracts and initial software purchases. However, organizations must determine if they are willing to pay premium prices for the additional functionality that Salesforce.coms rivals offer.
Salesforce.com includes about 80 percent of the functionality of Siebel 7 customer relationship management and sales force automation modules and about 65 percent of what Siebel offers comprehensively. For example, Salesforce.com lacks analytics and niche modules such as employee relationship management and call center applications.
In the areas where direct comparisons can be made, we found Salesforce.coms interface highly competitive with CRM and SFA packages from Interact Commerce, Onyx and Siebel. However, Salesforce.coms greatest advantage is that organizations can begin using it much more quickly and wont have to spend money on maintenance contracts and hardware—and thus will be able to recoup their investment faster than with other packages.
Salesforce.com is a hosted application, and all access is through a browser, so the company touts the solution as being software-free. The end of software may be coming (in an alternate dimension), but theres just as much software in Salesforce.coms internals as in any other large application.
In fact, Salesforce.com uses software thats installed on client machines. In this case, its Microsoft Corp.s Internet Explorer 5.5 or higher with cookies enabled. Salesforce.com harnesses XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformation) and XML to re- create the online environment in an offline fashion. Our tests showed that the client edition creates a nearly seamless connection to the online edition (see screen, Page 46).
To test Salesforce.com, we used a demo account, set up by the company, over which we had complete control. Using Enterprise Editions import function, we populated our account with about 400 contacts, 300 accounts (customers, competitors and partners) and two dozen leads (prospects).
We then installed (yes, installed) Offline Edition on our system. The client application installation process checks on browser compatibility and adds components that the browser requires to handle the XML data. It also set up shortcuts to the application.
Once installed, Offline Edition is completely integrated into IE. We then ran a synchronization process that imported data from online and brought it down in the form of XML documents to the client system.
Developers at Salesforce.com used a different set of style sheets on Offline Edition than they did on its online counterpart. Although we encountered only minor interface and synchronization glitches in this pre-release version, there is the possibility that discrepancies between the client and online editions will cause occasional hiccups. However, they will not be any different from the issues that Salesforce.coms competitors face, and we expect them to be minor.
Since these documents are in clear text, they themselves are insecure. This is not necessarily a big issue, since the only thing stored in these documents are names and addresses that have no context outside of the Salesforce.com application. However, those highly concerned with securing their contact information must depend on operating system and BIOS security.
Not all data is brought down to the client piece; Salesforce.com does a good job of bringing in the most relevant data. Rather than re-create the complete online experience in Offline Edition, Salesforce.com synchronizes just opportunities, appointments, to-do lists and contacts. Therefore, the list of accounts we imported did not make their way into our offline edition unless they were associated with an open opportunity.
We prefer this approach because it streamlines the already-intuitive interface further. Offline Editions interface is identical to the online editions, with the exception of a small window that shows synchronization status.
eWeek Labs Director John Taschek is at email@example.com.