Speaking of Syntegration

I saw a comment the other day about the salesforce.com acquisition of Koral, the enterprise content management innovator whose work is at the heart of Apex Content. An industry observer was wondering if salesforce.com might be losing its focus on its CRM base, becoming distracted by its pursuit of platform expansion opportunities like the handling of unstructured data.

It’s likely that what one person says, others may be thinking, and I’d like to get an oar in the water — because I think there’s a key point to be made about horizontal capabilities versus vertical specializations.

Adding content management capability to a platform strengthens all of the applications that run on that platform. In the case of the Apex platform, this means new document management capability for salesforce.com’s own sfa and service & support offerings; it means document sharing capabilities for partners through salesforce prm; it means document-centric customer communication capabilities for AppSpace, and significant new governance capabilities for the masses of unstructured data involved in financial services through the salesforce Wealth Management Edition.

It’s therefore kind of orthogonal, it seems to me, for anyone to ask if acquiring a content management capability is diverting salesforce.com from attending to the needs of its CRM customers. If the salesforce.com development team merely continued to polish and extend their existing, database-centered features and user interface capabilities, I’m sure they’d do an exemplary job — but it would be like astronomers continuing to study stars and planets, because it’s what they know how to do, while ignoring the inconvenient evidence that dark matter may actually dominate the universe. Unstructured data is not a trace contaminant of information space: it’s the bulk of what we know.

There’s ample evidence, moreover, that platforms improve most rapidly when a platform provider is also a platform consumer: when Apple, for example, drives its platform to meet the demands of tools like iChat AV, or when Microsoft extends its platform to provide new collaboration capabilities for Office. I don’t see anyone saying that Apple’s or Microsoft’s investment in search technology for their operating systems is a diversion of effort from improving their applications.

The difference, perhaps, is that people are used to thinking of Microsoft (for example) as a platform provider, forgetting that the company once was better known for applications: Microsoft Word is more than two years older than even the first (and barely usable) version of Microsoft Windows.

Don’t think of platform enrichment, therefore, as representing a zero-sum contest with application improvement. There’s vertical application integration that adds new features to an existing application and platform model; there’s horizontal platform extension that ignores the needs of real applications; and there’s the synergy that comes when a platform team lives close enough to an application team to feel their pain and to know what would actually make real applications more, umm, applicable to the needs of those who depend on them.

Call it "syntegration." It turns out that I didn’t invent the word, but I’m betting you heard it here first.

April 18, 2007