Salesforce's Chatter Free not a game changer, but very neat

Salesforce announced yesterday at the Dreamforce Conference in San Francisco that a free version of their Chatter social collaboration tool would be available in April 2010 and it comes close to being a game-changer in the effort to monitor, control and use multiple social media platforms.  But the concept of “free” is loosely defined.


 


You don’t have to be a Salesforce license holder to use Chatter, but the company you work for does.  And you can only invite people within that social community to participate.  That means you can’t include any external business or personal contacts.  You still have to maintain your own method for managing that.


 


There are lots of free and commercial tools for that task.  Too many, in fact, and one is as good/bad as any other.  My hope for Chatter, when I started hearing about potential free management tools, was that it would be a way for common folk to get ahold of all that information without having to check multiple pages, not unlike what the new Microsoft Mobile platform does.  In fact, Chatter does that, but within a very limited subset of the market with a very limited reach.


 


That’s the downside.  Here’s the upside.


 


It’s pretty damn neat.


 


As opposed to similar offerings from from Cisco and Microsoft, that are email based, Chatter directly integrates Facebook and Twitter status updates and adds social networking and real-time connections. It provides employees profiles, feeds and groups and developers can build social enterprise applications with status updates, build Facebook apps, and hook into APIs from Twitter so enterprises can track comments from customers and employees. All of it is secure within the company firewall.


OK, I hear you saying, so what’s the big deal?  Aren’t there other ways of doing the same thing?  Sure there are, but not in an integrated package.  There are proprietary platform and kluged frameworks of disparate applications that may or may not work and require personnel to maintain them.  Salesforce does all that for you.  In the demos I was able to see people come up, start entering their own information and start building their Chatter pages directly.  


Again I hear you saying: “What’s the point?  All that social media stuff is a waste of time. I need to work!”  That’s not a bad argument.  It’s impossible to keep up with all that stuff and eventually important information falls through the cracks... except for a helpful little app that isn’t part of Salesforce’s technology.


I did some reports on a company called http://operationaltransparency.com/ a few months back, and their tool has been integrated into the Salesforce framework.  It’s available in the Salesforce App Exchange.  The company makes an app that monitors the information, shows where the traffic is heaviest from what customer, department or individual; identifies critical issues and provides a single screen review for evaluation and action.  Each dot on the screen has links to specific status updates, documents, emails, etc. that can be reviewed simply by clicking on them.  In a matter of seconds you can figure out just what the heck is going on, and assign resources accordingly.


I met with the leadership of Operational Transparency briefly at Dreamforce and they gave me an update which we will go into much more detail in a few weeks. But as I said, Chatter is not the be all and end all to the social media morass, but combined with that nifty little tool, it kicks some serious butt and makes it easier to understand and demonstrate the power of social media as a business tool.


And that’s the really neat thing about Chatter.  I heard a lot of people saying that this was “Facebook for business, “ but that’s not the philosophy of Chatter.  Salesforce is not trying to replace the more popular social networks but make them clearly relevant within the business enterprise.  While there are other companies trying to do the same thing, including Microsoft and Yammer, none have quite the egalitarian spirit behind the Saleforce effort.  Instead of competing, Salesforce is collaborating with even potential competitors.  And that, beyond all the tech, is what makes this unique.