Microsoft and Salesforce: Keep your friends close, your rivals closer

Microsoft stands to win in the long run in its collaboration with Salesforce for next-generation business analytics

Microsoft and Salesforce: Keep your friends close, your rivals closer

A Microsoft CEO on stage at Dreamforce? Unthinkable!

Back in the Steve Ballmer days, sure. But nowadays, Salesforce and Microsoft are more interdependent than ever due to a shared a customer base.

But based on what Nadella showed off last night, Microsoft's enhancements to Salesforce's CRM outdo -- or at least flank -- the ones Salesforce itself has brewed up.

Speak and be heard

Nadella's demo showed how Microsoft can jazz up up Salesforce with Cortana Analytics, Microsoft's voice-driven system for allowing nondevelopers to extract insight and develop plans of action from business data. One cited example: Instead of merely generating sales forecasts, Cortana could suggest leads most likely to convert a given opportunity into a sale, given the history of both the lead and the user.

Embarrassingly, some of the inherent limitations of voice interfaces came back to bite Nadella, as when he asked Cortana to "show me my most at-risk opportunities" and ended up with a Bing search page showing him where to buy milk.

Still, the underlying idea is clear. Microsoft and Salesforce are buddying up because each has something to bring to the table the other simply doesn't have. Salesforce has its user base and CRM platform; Microsoft, its culture of Office users and its ongoing work in both machine learning and experimental UIs for business, as per both Cortana Analytics and the experimental GigJam project

Best frenemies

Salesforce has been trying to close the gap between the Salesforce users and developers, through both platform enhancements and open source front-end tooling. But the effort goes beyond slicker dashboards or mobile-friendly apps; it's about making it easier for nondevelopers to use analytics to take action.

This is also Microsoft's aim, which Nadella made explicit with two of the stated goals -- "reinvent productivity" and "make computing more personal and natural" -- in his keynote.

But as with the companies' previous partnership, Microsoft stands to have the upper hand in the long run. Not only does it enjoy a larger customer base, but the front end it's building to enrich Salesforce will ostensibly plug into Microsoft's own, less costly CRM. Thus, it'll be easier to compel users to change to the cheaper product, without feeling like they're losing features or functions.

This won't happen overnight. Cortana Analytics is a long way from the ubiquity of Microsoft Word, and Salesforce users are deeply invested in what they already have. But the impulse is clear: Capture the way people use a product, and you've captured their need for the product itself.