Salesforce.com on Wednesday said it has launched a new tool, Visualforce, that enables its customers to build custom user interfaces for applications running on the company's hosted infrastructure.
The new tool is a key part of the company's. Salesforce, best known for its software-as-a-service customer relationship management (CRM) applications, is branching out into the business of providing cloud-computing services.
CEO Marc Benioff has said the platform-as-a-service business represents "Salesforce.com's second decade....it's our next area of investment."
Visualforce, which Salesforce calls a "user interface as a service" tool, enables customized user interfaces to be created for any application developed on Force.com. Customers can use the tool to build applications that can be deployed through standard Web browsers or on mobile devices.
One early Visualforce customer, large European financial-software maker Coda, hasusing the tool that is based entirely on Force.com.
Visualforce uses a concept called components to make application building easier. The company has made available components of the Salesforce user interface so that developers can reassemble them and combine them with new elements in their applications.
The tool is part of the company's Summer '08 release of its applications.
Benioff hopes to expand Salesforce's platform business beyond its existing base of CRM customers to virtually any online business. It's a bold move that puts Salesforce in direct competition with Microsoft, Amazon.com, and many other providers of.
, to offer Google Apps integrated into Salesforce's applications, which could lead to a larger platform deal.
However, Benioff acknowledges the challenge of convincing customers, who know Salesforce only as an online CRM provider, that it can also be a trusted platform service. "It's hand-to-hand combat, like the days of client-server computing," he told me last month, while on a promotional tour for Force.com.
"We have a message for IT. We didn't have that when I started Salesforce.com. We had to figure out how to do this and prove that it works. Now we have to get face-to-face (with customers) to explain it," he said.