Salesforce Showcases Next-Gen Lightning Platform That Goes Live Friday

Setting its sights on its new fiscal year 2017, Salesforce hosted a glitzy luncheon Tuesday during which it revealed a major revamp of its Lightning application development platform, as well as versions of its two most-popular apps built on the new technology.

CEO Marc Benioff and several other Salesforce executives and product leaders took turns working the microphone at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco to preview Spring Release '16 -- the 49th release of the cloud-based software that's regularly updated three times a year.

Spring '16 represents an important milestone for Salesforce because it's the CRM leader's first major update of a live platform, those executives said. Salesforce is also introducing versions of its Sales and Service clouds built on Lightning that incorporate its features and user experience.

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While some users have already transitioned to the latest release, the complete software rollout will take place Friday.

Benioff told his guests that shifting any underlying technology presents a double-edged sword.

Salesforce wants to implement a "breakthrough on the platform," Benioff said, "but make sure we don't break our customers' existing apps" already running on that platform.

It's "like changing engines in midflight," Benioff said. The update so far has been so smooth that many customers didn't even know it happened.

Salesforce tends to the theatric. The luncheon kicked off with members of legendary rock band Metallica playing the national anthem among guests seated at formal dining tables in the St. Regis ballroom.

In the spirit of this coming Sunday's Super Bowl near San Francisco, Benioff called Tuesday's event "the halftime show in between our two Dreamforces."

But before discussing the product vision for the first half of the new fiscal year, Benioff formally announced President and Vice Chairman Keith Block's promotion to chief operating officer.

Block, who came to Salesforce three years ago from Oracle, has become a right hand to the CEO, and Benioff credited him for helping Salesforce "get to next level of enterprise execution."

Alex Dayon, president, products, then filled in some of the particulars of the new release.

Salesforce aims for each and every product to be a leader in its category, Dayon said, but it also wants to get each of its seven clouds running on a single platform.

At last year's Dreamforce, Salesforce introduced Lightning, which it envisioned as becoming that single platform delivering a single user experience. In the few months since, 90,000 customers have adopted Lightning to build and execute applications.

Systems integration giant Accenture was profiled at the luncheon as a customer that has shifted its internal processes to Lightning.

Now the process of transitioning Salesforce's own apps to the new platform has begun, starting with Sales Cloud.

The Spring '16 release delivers Sales Cloud Lightning, incorporating innovations from Lightning melded with technologies obtained from some recent acquisitions.

Sales Cloud Lightning integrates SteelBrick CPQ, technology from an ISV partner that the company recently acquired, with a popular quote-to-cash solution built on the Salesforce platform.

"Before we could do lead-to-deal, but for lead-to-cash you had to go to partners," Dayon said.

Another advancement is SalesforceIQ Inbox, which integrates the CRM with email. That functionality was made possible by technology obtained through the acquisition of RelateIQ.

Sales Cloud Lightning also includes a voice calling feature, a new Sales Wave app for data crunching that introduces a pipeline trending dashboard, and offline functionality for the Salesforce1 mobile app.

Salesforce also is releasing Service Cloud Lightning, a version of its Service Cloud that adds field service functionality such as smart scheduling and dispatching, connecting field workforces with an "Uber experience" reminiscent of the popular transportation service, Benioff said.

The 50th Salesforce release will be coming in June. That version will be "all about mobility," Benioff said, and will incorporate a new marketing mobile application and security capabilities obtained through another acquisition.