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Salesforce tool a key part of platform push

Visualforce, used to build application user interfaces, is a key part of the CRM specialist's expansion into the cloud-computing business. 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 platform-as-a-service business line, called 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 "'s second's our next area of investment." CEO Marc Benioff and Google chief Eric Schmidt. Dan Farber/CNET

Visualforce, which Salesforce calls a "user interface as a service" tool, enables customized user interfaces to be created for any application developed on 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, has written an accounting application called Coda2go using the tool that is based entirely on

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,, and many other providers of cloud-computing services.

Salesforce has already partnered with Google, 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

"We have a message for IT. We didn't have that when I started 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.