Salesforce vs Box: turns out, there's room for both CEO Marc Benioff
Credit: IDGNS Boston

Last week, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff created a small stir when he announced from the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt that Salesforce was about to announce a competitor to Box called Chatterbox.

Turns out it's not really a direct competitor.

Today during Dreamforce, Salesforce demonstrated how a customer service rep for Virgin America would actually use Chatterbox in a real-world scenario. This demo made clear that Chatterbox is a new feature -- file-sharing -- for Chatter, Salesforce's enterprise social network. It's not meant as a general-purpose document sharing and collaboration platform.

In the demo, the rep was already using Chatter, Salesforce's social communication platform, which organizes all kinds of relevant information and communications into a Facebook-like news stream.

To help a valued customer make a connecting flight on time, the rep created an airport map that showed the customer how to get to the right gate in a hurry. Then, the rep wanted a Virgin rep to meet the customer at the gate, and hold up an iPad showing the map. 

So how could this worker get the map to his teammates in San Francisco? That's where Chatterbox comes in -- the worker simply puts the file in a folder on his desktop, and it's automatically synced to Chatter. Then, the rep can just send the message, with the attached file, to the customer service team in San Francisco. The rep never has to leave Chatter.

Is this a threat to Box? Only if more users adopt Chatter. 

So far, that doesn't seem to be happening. Salesforce claims only about 170,000 Chatter "networks", out of a total customer base of more than 3 million end users as of 2011. In contrast, Box claims more than 10 million customers, from individuals to enterprises.

Salesforce is a giant, and it has a lot of tools in its arsenal, including partnerships -- for instance, cloud-based HR service Workday will announce deeper integration with Chatter tomorrow.

But as Box CEO Aaron Levie explained in a recent interview with IDG Enterprise, it's all about focus: Box is entirely focused on file collaboration, and believes it can stay ahead of competitors by doing that one thing better than anybody else.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story linked to a Chatter product information page claiming 100,000 customers. That information page has been updated and the 100,000 number removed. Salesforce told us that referred total paying Salesforce customers, and said that Chatter has 170,000 "networks" within organizations. It does not disclose any other adoption information for Chatter.

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