Salesforce.com on Tuesday announced Chatter Free, a version of its social collaboration software that includes a Facebook-like "invite" feature that enables paying users to invite anyone, even non-Salesforce.com customers, to use Chatter.
Chatter employs familiar social-networking functionality like user profiles, real-time information streams, status updates and file-sharing. Now, when a user accepts a Chatter invite, they will receive a Chatter Free license.
Chatter Free has some limitations compared to other versions of the software, such as Chatter Plus, which allows users to "follow" business data and use custom objects. Salesforce.com is clearly hoping Chatter Free users will want more over time and decide to upgrade.
Some 60,000 of Salesforce.com's roughly 87,000 customers have deployed Chatter since its general release earlier this year, according to the company. However, it's not clear how broad those deployments are in general.
Chatter Free's invite feature, however, is "going to take Chatter enterprise-wide," Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff said in a statement.
Chatter has made a serious impact on the IT industry, in the view of analyst Denis Pombriant, managing principal of Beagle Research.
"First, it created or certainly solidified a new market niche for collaboration technology. Second, it was another proof point for the robustness of the cloud computing model and [Salesforce.com's Force.com platform] in particular. And finally, it domesticated social media," he said in a recent blog post.
"Chatter avoids many of the pitfalls seen in other social media in part because it is aimed at a population that is expected to use it as a condition of employment, and that appears to be working well from the stories I've seen," Pombriant added. "The result is a proof point for social technology in the enterprise, something that was lacking."
Salesforce.com isn't finished with releasing new iterations of Chatter, Benioff said during a keynote address Tuesday at the company's Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, which was webcast.
In February, Salesforce.com will launch Chatter.com, which will be available for use by anyone at no charge. As with Chatter Free, the hope is that Chatter.com users will trade up, Benioff said.
Some observers had been hoping Benioff's talk would deliver some high-profile customer case studies for Chatter. The Dreamforce audience got one in the form of Dell, a close partner and customer of Salesforce.com.
Dell began deploying Chatter in July to about 30,000 sales representatives, said John Miles, vice president of Dell's business information organization, who joined Benioff onstage.
Chatter got strong support from Dell's top executive leadership, which was crucial, Miles said. About a month ago, the deployment expanded to more than 100,000 Dell workers around the world, he said.
The company is getting increased value from Chatter, according to Miles. Before, users were discussing customer accounts but primarily from a sales point of view. Now the conversations encompass the complete spectrum of supporting customers, he said.
Dell didn't simply throw the switch on Chatter, he added. The company was careful to conduct "very strong training programs with the business" to ensure adoption, Miles said.
This story was updated on December 7, 2010
Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com.