Salesforce Identity and the Rare Art of Shapeshifting Technologies

Andreas Pfeiffer | October 06, 2013

Major Points

Very often, the first iterations of groundbreaking technologies are initially not perceived at their true potential.

Salesforce Identity provides pervasive integrated identity services for the enterprise market.

Concerns about exploitation of personal data by the big social media companies who need the advertising revenue could create the basis oaf disruptions in the social media space.

Once in a while, a big technology provider goes through a shapeshifting process, which, once it has been completed seems oh-so-obvious, yet can be hard to spot when it is actually happening. The most blatant example in recent history is of course Apple, which morphed from the status of inspired (but on the grand scale of things luckless) computer manufacturer to the consumer electronics behemoth of today. Apple introduced the first iPod just over twelve years ago, in 2001, and at the launch event, Steve Jobs memorably stated ‘I think this is going to be really, really big for us’, to which most pundits condescendingly pointed out the overall size of the audio-player market, stating something along the lines of: ‘How big can it really be? There are just so many MP3 players a company can sell ‘- meaning, of course, that the iPod surely couldn’t save Apple from impending doom and gloom.

The rest is history, of course. Putting aside the planetary success of the iconic music player (several hundred million sold), without the iPod there could not have been an iPhone or iPad, no iTunes Store, or App Store. The launch of the iPod was when the shape-shifting process for Apple began, but it would have been well-nigh impossible to predict at the time (although I’m relatively certain that Steve Jobs had figured that evolution out as soon as he started working on the iPod).

It could well be that the very first brick of another such transformation has been laid very recently, from a company that is highly respected in enterprise cloud services, but currently little-known to the consumer audience: Salesforce. A few weeks ago, Salesforce announced the general availability of Salesforce Identity, a technology which, to put it in the words of the corporate press release, “provides integrated identity services to connect every employee, customer and partner to any app, on any device” There is of course a lot of potential —and competition—in single-log-in and authentication technology in the enterprise space; Salesforce is offering a powerful implementation, but what we want to look at here is not that specific market, but where it could be taken if the right vision was driving it.

Are we at the dawn of a new shapeshifting process? Several things need to happen for such a technology transformation to occur: first of all, you need a charismatic, wilful and vision-driven leader – I think Salesforce’s CEO Marc Benioff fits the bill quite nicely. Secondly, you need a paradigm-shift in technology that is in such early stages that the average observer may not be fully aware of what is building up. In the case of Apple, that was the dawn of a new class of cool consumer electronics, in the case of Salesforce Identity it is the increasing concern with on-line identity and security, and with the exploitation of personal data by the likes of Facebook and Google.

In this perspective, companies such as Google and Facebook, are faced with one insoluble problem, and that is the nature of their revenue stream. The only way Facebook can make money is to let advertisers mine the considerable treasure-trove of personal, interconnected information. So far, users don’t really seem to mind too much: the perceived benefits of what the social media site brings by far outweigh concerns about privacy for the vast majority of users. Yet that situation can change—concerns have been rising for a long time already—and when disruption starts to happen, it usually occurs faster than anybody imagined. As a good friend of mine likes to say “If the Berlin Wall could come down, anything can happen”

At first blush, the suggestion that Salesforce could encroach on Facebook or Twitter may seem extravagant. (But then again, who would have thought Apple could outshine Nokia when the first iPod was introduced?) So far Salesforce, competing more with the Larry Ellisons of this world than with the Mark Zuckerbergs, has its sight clearly set on the enterprise market, and there is a lot of competition for Identity in that market alone to keep Salesforce plenty busy for some time to come.

Yet it is hard to imagine that Marc Benioff hasn’t figured out the main-stream social media potential of his cloud technology a long, long time ago. It is certainly no accident that Salesforce makes Identity available as a standalone solution, and that it bundles Chatter, the company’s text-messaging service with Identity. And here comes the interesting part: should Salesforce one day decide to create a consumer version of Identity and Chatter, it could indeed be a formidable competitor for Facebook. Why? Because Salesforce, with an assured revenue stream from enterprise software, would not need to rely on advertising to keep such a solution going. Just imagine being able to provide a Facebook or Twitter-like service without having to sell user data to finance it. In our increasingly security and privacy obsessed world, how much more credible would a social media service be that can say loud and clear: nobody gets access to your data. Ever.

When the time is ripe (and it will be) that sort of argument, from a company as big as Salesforce, could become a very potent driver of change…

All of this is of course just speculation at this point. But stranger things have happened in technology…