By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website
Oracle, the US software and database giant, has a tried and tested policy for dealing with uppity rivals: it buys them.
Size is not an issue. Huge firms like Peoplesoft and Siebel have all succumbed to Oracle's advances.
So will Salesforce.com - challenger not just to Oracle, but SAP and Microsoft as well - be the next takeover target? "In this case, I think it would be more fun to crush them," says Charles Phillips, the president of Oracle.
Headquarter: San Francisco
On-demand users: 399,000
Annual sales: $309m
Net profit: $28.5m
Earnings data for financial year to January 2006
Getting up Oracle's nose is Salesforce.com's founder and boss Marc Benioff, himself a former top executive at Oracle.
Mr Benioff, a laidback Californian with a yearning for the beaches of Hawaii, giggles when he talks about Oracle's threat.
He professes not to be worried by his big rivals and reels off the advantages of Salesforce.com's business model.
Salesforce.com offers "customer relationship management" (CRM) software that allows businesses to track and analyse all dealings with customers in real-time. It can smooth workflows, flag up problems and speed up the sales process.
Salesforce's twist: It provides its software exclusively "on demand", through a web browser over the internet.
Customers don't have to worry about installing and maintaining the software, database or technical infrastructure. Buy it as a service instead, says Mr Benioff, and save money to boot.
Small companies without huge IT departments benefit most, but large firms like AOL, Cisco, Nokia and Merrill Lynch have opted for Salesforce.com's on-demand solution as well.
Mr Benioff, a master of the marketing sound bite, brings it to the point in his company's "no software" slogan and ghostbuster style logo.
The rush to market
"On-demand" has been around for a while, although it never really took off.
Mark Benioff says in-house software is too expensive
But now Salesforce.com - and smaller on-demand rivals like RightNow and NetSuite - appear to be on to something.
Growth is rapid, with sales at Salesforce.com up from $96m two years ago to $309m during the past financial year, and annual net profits running at $28.5m.
The big players in the multi-billion dollar market for CRM software have taken note and launched their own on-demand products.
Siebel - now owned by Oracle - started offering online CRM services two years ago, while the global market leader in enterprise software, Germany's SAP, announced its own on-demand product at the beginning of February.
Microsoft wants a slice of the action too, with the roll-out of its CRM 3.0 application and tests of its new on-demand "Microsoft Office Live" product.
Mr Benioff, for his part, speaks of defensive moves by traditional software giants who worry that Salesforce.com might put "their entire business model... at risk".
A 'disruptive model'
But can Salesforce.com survive the onslaught of its well-funded competitors?
Mr Benioff believes his on-demand only approach will win the day, because his rivals try to trick customers with a "bait and switch".
Clients are lured with low-cost on-demand offerings, only to sign them up for more profitable on-premises solutions later.
Firms like SAP and Oracle, he says, "are not really committed to the [business] model" and therefore "not as committed to [on-demand] customer success as we are".
He may have a point.
SAP makes no bones that it is offering an "on demand solution that can over time grow into an on-premises solution".
Microsoft also bets on a mix of on-demand and on-premises solutions, while over at Oracle senior vice president Jesper Andersen argues that customers probably prefer a hybrid of both solutions.
The big software firms, says Denis Pombriant, a CRM specialist and managing principal at Beagle Research, just "do not see the competitive threat of the disruptive model of Salesforce".
They want "to sell their expensive on-premises product, because these are the products that deliver the best returns for their shareholders".
Wherever he has run the numbers, Mr Pombriant says, on-demand has turned out to be cheaper.
The Achilles heel
So will businesses soon stop running their own software and subscribe to on-demand services instead?
Despite offering on-demand software themselves, Salesforce.com's rivals are keen to point out the two Achilles heels of the model.
The first is security: Do you really want all your financial and customer data on somebody else's server?
"Some businesses are not comfortable in putting all their mission-critical sales or financial information on the public internet," says Oracle's Jesper Andersen.
And Leo Apotheker, SAP's president of customer solutions and operations, warns that most customers "don't want on-demand because it's not under their control".
On-demand software can be as fast as in-house applications, says Salesforce.com
Denis Pombriant at Beagle Research does not agree: "The on-demand industry has shown that it has better [data] security than most of its customers."
The second issue - reliability - is much more worrying.
Will company bosses still be a fan of on-demand software once their network, their on-demand service provider or the internet itself suffer major outages?
Salesforce.com annoyed plenty of customers when late last year the launch of a new data centre went wrong and triggered several long service outages. Oracle describes it as Salesforce.com "crushing itself".
Marc Benioff, who usually speaks with the zeal of a missionary, suddenly sounds contrite: "The past six weeks were an unfortunate period."
But he still insists that his firm's on-demand services "have a much higher reliability than most people with on-premises applications".
After all, being online and available is "our core competency, we do it better than anybody else," he says.
To calm customer nerves and counter bad press, he has launched the trust.salesforce.com website, where everybody can check the status of the company's data centres.
Rod Favaron, chief executive of Lombardi Software, says that despite the outages he is a happy Salesforce.com customer.
For him the on-demand model makes economic sense and works as long as the software in question "does not need to be integrated into the customer's infrastructure".
But can CRM-specialist Salesforce.com be more than a one-trick pony?
Unlike SAP & Oracle, the company does not have the reach or resources to develop and provide the full and integrated range of enterprise software solutions that larger businesses demand.
Mr Benioff hopes a new application-sharing service, called AppExchange, will do the trick.
It is a platform for customers, software partners and Salesforce.com itself to write and share customised on-demand software solutions.
It promises to extend Salesforce.com's service into highly profitable sectors like healthcare and human resources.
"We have a desire for our customers to use our product more ... [and] with these apps it makes sense for customers to buy more [subscriptions]," says Mr Benioff.
The real battle
But will it be enough to challenge the big players?
Oracle for one doesn't take the AppExchange very serious. It offers a few "nice toys", says Mr Andersen, but no truly customised applications.
SAP's Leo Apotheker is even more scathing: "Salesforce.com is not even a rival."
"We specialise in delivering mission-critical solutions," he says, where customers can't rely on the vagaries of on-demand.
"Salesforce.com reminds me of Siebel three or four years ago. Today Siebel doesn't exist anymore."
To Oracle and SAP it probably doesn't even matter whether salesforce.com grabs market share at the edges of the CRM business.
They are fighting a much bigger battle for domination of the hugely profitable market for enterprise software, which according to SAP will be worth $70bn by 2010.
Oracle has grown its market share rapidly by buying up smaller rivals.
SAP in turn has used the turmoil to sow doubt amongst Oracle's customers, marketing itself as the company that is immune to the disruption a rapid series of mergers can bring.
The battle has turned nasty, fought with fierce but impossible to verify claims and counterclaims about customers won or lost.
SAP says it has scooped up more than 200 Oracle customers and a pipeline of defectors that according to Mr Apotheker "is significantly larger than that".
Oracle's Jesper Andersen calls these claims "complete baloney ... ridiculous, untrue." In some markets and industries, he admits, SAP is doing better, but says that in others it is constantly losing out.
The art of software war
Maybe this is Salesforce's opportunity. While the giants fight, it can steadily grow its on-demand niche and turn it into a huge market.
"When rivals who have long dismissed our model finally embrace on-demand, minds and markets are opened to us," says Mr Benioff.
Even SAP's Leo Apotheker acknowledges that the "on-demand party has just barely started".
Mr Benioff quotes the "Art of War", written by the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu and a favourite read with many managers.
"In the military more is not better, you don't have to be large to win battles, and that's true in the technology industry as well," says Mr Benioff.
Maybe. But Sun Tzu also wrote that "though an obstinate fight may be made by a small force, in the end it must be captured by the larger force".
Salesforce.com must hope that not all Chinese wisdom applies to the software industry.