CEO: Customization is king

Marc Benioff argues that Apex will let customers diverge further from one-size-fits-all hosted applications approach.

SAN Chief Executive Marc Benioff trumpeted the company's Apex technology as the next step in customization of the company's otherwise generic Web-based business services.

Apex is a Java-like programming language and server infrastructure that will let customers build their own applications, either extensions to's services or free-standing programs built from scratch. will host the applications on its own servers.

Marc Benioff

Suppose a customer wants features not present in today's user interface. "What can you do about it? Nothing! You can harass us, send us e-mail and lobby us," Benioff said. It will be up to to change the software, he told thousands of attendees at the company's Dreamforce conference here in a keynote address.

With Apex, by contrast, "If you want to change our software, you can do it," he said.

The move is the newest step in the San Francisco-based company's effort to maintain its growth. Benioff told CNET that he expects Apex will mean the company's services will appeal to new customers and that existing customers will sign up for new subscriptions. However, he declined to describe pricing details. offers an online version of customer relationship management (CRM) software, which tracks details such as customers' purchasing history, sales force quotas, or supervisors' approvals of discounted product prices. Hosted CRM competitors include NetSuite and RightNow Technologies, while traditional software companies including Oracle, SAP and Microsoft also are in the market.

Apex is in a closed beta test now and will enter open beta in the first quarter of 2007, Benioff said. The production version will be available in the second quarter.

The service will run on hundreds of Dell servers, Chairman Michael Dell said in a video appearance. The systems are Intel processor-based models, the PowerEdge 1850 and 1950, according to a presentation by Parker Harris,'s executive vice president of technology.

Apex also highlights the increasingly complicated infrastructure available on the company's servers. The company has made its initially generic interface gradually more customizable to suit different customers' needs, most recently adding its AppExchange service to more than 400 business applications from other companies that are based on's infrastructure.

Some AppExchange options available today include hosted applications for job recruiting and project management, Benioff said.'s interface also got a Web 2.0 makeover. Bringing AJAX, mashups and other technology to the browser-based interface, users have a more elaborate options.

For example, hovering the mouse pointer over items such as contacts or calendar entries automatically reveals details of those items. Pop-up windows appear to offer reminders. And sidebars of the user interface can be temporarily collapsed to devote more screen real estate to primary tasks.

"We think this is going to dramatically increase the usability and the user experience," Chief Marketing Officer George Hu said in a demonstration.

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