With the coming release of Salesforce Touch, which I predict will be released either at or just after Dreamforce 2012, I wanted to explore what impact this will have for developers and the platform itself.

So let’s start with what Salesforce Touch is. Salesforce Touch is a mobile interface for the Salesforce.com application. It will provide a single interface for accessing your Salesforce.com data on the go from your favorite mobile device. To do this Salesforce Touch will need to rely on technologies such as HTML5, CSS3, and Javascript. While a native app would likely provide a better experience and performance it just isn’t practical or cost effective to write a unique code base for each mobile platform. So instead it will use existing web-based technologies to deliver a mobile experience. This is further supported by their demo video that shows a common user experience across all devices for accessing Salesforce CRM and Chatter data.

So it’s at this point you might be wondering what this might mean for developers and the platform as a whole. So here are the questions that I came up with as I explored this topic that I want to cover in this post:

  • Why create a mobile specific application?
  • What platforms will Salesforce Touch support?
  • Will Salesforce Touch support Visualforce?
  • When will it be available?
  • What can we expect from Salesforce Touch in the future?

As we explore the questions above keep in mind that anything I have to say will be based on what I have been able to gather through my own research and my own opinions/speculation on what Salesforce.com has planned. Unfortunately, I do not have access to any insider information on the topic.

Why create a mobile specific application?

Why indeed. We have seen plenty of web applications transition to support mobile platforms using responsive design techniques. This technique involves using CSS to format your content to target a particular screen resolution or device. So why doesn’t Salesforce just adopt these techniques? In my opinion there are a couple of reasons not to go this route for web applications.

Performance and User Experience

Web applications tend to mimic their desktop counterparts both in functionality and in content and Salesforce.com is not immune to this fact. This means that the amount of content they transmit to and from a users browser can be very large, which isn’t a big deal for users on desktop computers with access to reasonable amounts of bandwidth. However, mobile users have very specific requirements when it comes to performance and bandwidth consumption. Users of mobile devices deal with throttled bandwidths, device memory limits, and the need to access very specific pieces of information instantly in order for the content to be useful. It is because of this that I feel that simply reconfiguring the layout of the existing Salesforce web application would not yield the best performance or user experience.

By creating a specific mobile enabled application users will be given access to a more streamlined interface that only presents information to the user that will be valuable to them while away from their computer such as Accounts, Contacts, Opportunities, and Activities. Performace can also be gained by only displaying a subset of the available fields from each of these objects for mobile consumption. This means that we will likely see mobile specific page layouts and security profile settings.

Creating a Mobile Platform.

It is no secret that Salesforce.com wants to be viewed as more than a CRM application. Salesforce.com is a cloud based platform and wants to extend that platform to the mobile market. While Salesforce will start with providing access to CRM sales data it is apparent that in the coming years they will be looking for ways to allow developers to create mobile applications that leverage the Salesforce.com data cloud. Using this platform developers will be able to create web based applications that not only provide rich desktop experiences but efficient mobile experiences where the user’s data is centralized and accessible from anywhere.

This will likely be a love hate relationship for developers. On one hand they will have all the tools available to them to be able to create applications that will be able to support desktop and mobile users from the start and in a fraction of the time it would take to build either from scratch. However, the Salesforce.com pricing model, from my experience, has never really been very easy to understand and/or justify for start-ups or those looking to trim the fat from their budgets. Afterall, the Salesforce subscription model is best understood when compared against long term projections and may be tough to swallow for those that do not already have an established user base.

Competition

Salesforce is the big player in cloud computing and arguable is one of the most well known pioneers of cloud computing. This means that everyone else is gunning for a piece of Salesforce’s market share.

In order to stay relevant and competitive Salesforce is in a position to need to constantly explore new ways for users to engage and interact with their data. In the last few years we saw how social media went from the consumer market to more commercial use and Salesforce took a unique approach to this by creating Chatter a technology that allows your data to participate in the social conversation rather than simply being another data source to mine and analyze.

Today, there is no denying the impact the iPhone and iPad has had on the consumer and commercial market. User’s have incorporated these devices into their daily routines and are hungry for content. Salesforce.com will no doubt do everything they can to help satisfy that hunger.

What platforms will Salesforce Touch support?

The quick answer is all of them…eventually. However, based on my research the first version will only provide support for iOS devices and more specifically may only support the iPad on day one. It is fairly obvious that when it comes to tablets the Apple iPad is what most people are using or are planning on purchasing. It has proven to be one of those devices that you didn’t know you wanted till you had one and as more consumers share their experiences it only means more sales for Apple. So it makes sense that the iPad will be the first to be supported.

Will Salesforce Touch support Visualforce?

Saddly no. Not anytime soon at least. It is clear that the first version of Salesforce Touch will be a baby-step to see how the technology plays out and what features users will really care about.

Also, Visualforce is not very efficient. It is based on post-back technologies rather than real-time AJAX technologies. Having said that though we have already seen advances in Visualforce that will provide developers with the tools they will need to develop mobile applications, such as the recent addition of the REST API, JSON, and the ability to call Apex Code methods directly from javascript to the platform. These technologies ,in my opinion, are what we will be relying on in the near future to build custom interfaces for mobile platforms.

When will it be available?

I have a strong suspicion that it will be released sometime during Dreamforce 2012. I can’t think of anything going on right now that is bigger than mobile applications. For the last couple of years Chatter has been front and center at Dreamforce and I think it will be a natural transition for Salesforce to make this event all about mobile applications. I predict a lot of time spent by Marc Benioff on mobile devices, how they have “changed our lives”, and maybe we will even see how many more devices Marc can hide in his pants this time… If you were there and remember what I am talking about, you chuckled a bit…come on admit it :).

What can we expect from Salesforce Touch in the future?

So here is where I go into pure speculation mode. I have already speculated that Salesforce.com will move beyond simply enabling access to sales data from your mobile device to prodiving a platform for building fully custom mobile applications. And I have touched a bit on what technologies will be used to enable this support. So that leaves us with a few loose ends.

It will cost you

I don’t see Salesforce offering this feature for free and by that I mean the feature license and not the application; you should be able to download the application to your device for free. I think that given that Salesforce Touch initially will serve the needs of sale teams and managers that it will be a feature that you will need to request to be enabled and likley need to tack on a feature license for.

I also feel that most organizations will only want to provide mobile access to certain users and thus there won’t be a volume market out their to support this feature being made available to everyone for free. I also don’t see any form of competetive factor weighing in on the decision to make it available for free. I could be wrong but that is where I am at right now.

It will be very Chatter centric

I don’t think this is too much of stretch. Salesforce has put a lot of time and money behind Chatter, even buying ad time for the Super Bowl to advertise it. It is definitely part of the mobile application and I feel will be key to it’s sucess. Afterall, when you are on the go what you really want are smarter applications that can help you keep tabs on the things that you define as critical. It is because of this that I think we will continue to see more focus being put on Chatter and data feeds as a whole on the Salesforce.com platform.

I can see Salesforce Touch moving more towards data analytics and social media rather than being a strict-mobile database application. There is no value to Salesforce Touch if all it does is let you search and update records in Salesforce. The real value will need to come from it’s abilty to help you do your job better and more efficiently either in transit from location to location or when sitting across the room from a client.

It will become a powerful sales presentation tool

What better way to enable your sales team than to have them use their tablets as a mobile presentation tool. A very interesting article published by Macworld discusses a growing market for AppleTV’s in the conference room. It actually isnt’ a bad idea. Since many companies are issuing iPads to their staff it stands to reason that a conference room outfitted with an HD TV and AppleTV could be a very cost effective way to enable users to give presentations without the need to fumble for video cables, power outlets, and the elusive projector remote that even if we did manage to find it no one knows how to get it to work.

It also stands to reason that with Google, Apple, and Samsung all aggressively attempting to re-invent televisions into smart devices that they will come with built-in capability to connect to your tablet device. What better use for Salesforce Touch than to have it contain all of your sales presentations. Who knows maybe it could even be a great little kiosk to put out at conferences.

Anyone remember the face-time video at Dreamforce where a support rep used FaceTime to physically look at the user’s issue and was able to troubleshoot it quickly? Imagine that same video but with a sales representative walking in to a conference room, starting up his iPad and showing presentations based on questions asked by a client rather than a full on rehearsed sales pitch that only touches on topics that matter.