Salesforce users are starting to understand that Chatter, the messaging and transactions system for the entire Force.com platform, is not a chat tool. Rather, it's a communications stream that substitutes for most internal email. Why isn't it a chat tool, you ask?  The only plausible answer - that Salesforce simply hasn't plugged in the chat capability yet - becomes moot next month.

Piece-by-piece, but by no means slowly, Salesforce has been assembling an integrated arsenal of cloud-based weapons aimed squarely at Microsoft's stronghold on enterprise applications, particularly with respect to communication. We've talked about its move to reduce workers' reliance on Outlook, and email in general, as their main mode of indirect contact. Outlook's trump card has been its tie-ins to Windows Live Messenger, which are certain to be augmented by tie-ins to Skype (hopefully within our lifetimes).

But Microsoft shedding light on its Skype integration plans would be like Fischer telling Spassky his queen is vulnerable. While Redmond scrambles to coordinate Skype with Office 14 and Windows 8, Salesforce is integrating its own direct IM system into Chatter. Beginning next month, users of Salesforce or apps built on its platform will be able to launch ad hoc chats in the context of their activity streams. 

Screen Sharing

And by fall 2012, the company will add screen sharing.

"For a lot of the ad hoc collaboration - when somebody needs help on a deal or they're trying to solve a case or write an answer quickly -  are they going to set up a meeting and structure that?  Usually not," says Kendall Collins, Salesforce's senior vice president and general manager for Chatter. Here, Collins is talking about Salesforce's existing tie-ins to Citrix GoToMeeting, its preferred tool for videoconferencing.

ReadWriteWeb asked Collins whether this new one-two punch of IM with videoconferencing endangers that partnership. His response was clever: Users are likely to kick in screen sharing on the fly or in the context of a support call. They'll continue to use GoToMeeting, he said, to set up scheduled conferences between multiple parties. 

"GoToMeeting is an incredible tool for structured meetings, webinars and large, external audiences," he said. "But we've seen as a gap in the market the ability to collaborate in context around a business process." In fact, Collins' meeting with us took place over GoToMeeting - it was scheduled in advance, it utilized single-source screen sharing, and it was moderated. It also involved someone outside the team members' network (myself). "I think that people will have the need for very structured meetings and content delivery," he added.

But this new screen-sharing feature will be localized to team members, and will pop up in the context of a chat initiated through the activity stream in the Chatter tab.

The chat process itself is less than revolutionary, though it fills the most prominent void in Salesforce's cloud arsenal. With the system engaged, users will see point-of-presence indicators beside each team member, indicating their current state of availability. Outlook users have had this ability with Office Communicator for several years now, and it's part of Microsoft's tie-in to its Lync server (formerly Unified Communications).

Mobile First? Not This Time

This is where Salesforce's strategy gets interesting, and maybe a little dicey: The company will roll out its inline chat feature to desktop users first, Collins told us. It's still testing mobile capabilities. Mobile is important because it impacts the very meaning of "available" in the context of Chatter's inline chat. Not long ago, "available" and "accessible" were different properties. You may be out of the office and thus unavailable, for example. If (and probably when) mobile accessibility goes live for inline chat, if you're accessible in any way (that is, if you're close to your smartphone), then you're probably available. Unless, of course, you shut your blinds and make yourself unavailable.

And that, strangely enough, plays into Salesforce's own emerging "karma" metric, which appears below each user's portrait on her profile page. The metric measures relative influence on other members of the team. It's an analytic measurement and a complicated one at that, explains Collins: "Customers have never had an ability to understand the influence and impact of any individual in the graph. So you're starting to see some interesting gamification." He tells a story of a fellow Salesforce employee who discovered to his own shock that, despite making the most comments to the team, he failed to score high on the influence bar. "That pushed him to contribute more," he adds, "and I think the value of any network is based on your contributions."

As Salesforce develops mobile chat, relative accessibility is likely to be a factor in the influence score.

Auditability

One of the barriers preventing big business from moving to a Salesforce-driven system right away has been the need to comply with federal mandates to retain emails and internal communications. If your business uses less email this year than it did last year, that might look suspicious to a judge.

Collins assures us that Salesforce is keeping this fact in mind, especially as it continues to roll out a separate, governments-only service.  "Trust has been a hallmark of Salesforce.com," he says. "Having auditable processes and audible ways to track data is part of who we are, and that's no different with Chatter. In fact, one of the reasons IT customers choose Chatter over competitors is that they trust us for compliance, scale, performance, disaster recovery and all the things they need in an enterprise-grade system. We spent a lot of time building out all the key compliance tables for Chatter... We have gone through audits with various financial institutions, many of whom use Chatter as their employee social network. And we know some customers have explicit requirements around e-discovery. We've had partners build various tools on top of those compliance tables. So, if you have a very stringent industry requirement or specific company requirement that is not something that Chatter does out of the box, we've got a host of partners."