intrigues me, and that’s a positive thing. The company keeps reinventing itself and shows the type of innovation that used to be more common in Silicon Valley.

If you thought that Salesforce was in the business of hosting customer relationship management software, you’re living in the past. CRM barely scratches the surface of where the company is today. Sure, the company describes itself as “Web-based Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Software-as-a-Service,” but when was the last time you heard anyone talking about the company’s CRM systems?

With Salesforce today, it’s all cloud, cloud, cloud. And chocolate—Salesforce is very popular with my family, since the company’s public-relations team bundles bags of chocolate with its press-release packets. Full disclosure: It’s delicious. Also, our advertising sales team uses Salesforce’s CRM system.

Chocolate? By sending out press packets with tasty treats, Salesforce keeps demonstrating that it’s an old-fashioned company innovating with the latest technologies. Very few companies mail out printed materials to journalists any more. Everything is all e-mail and Web pages, webcasts and blogs. Yet there’s something appealingly archaic—positively 1980s—about this corporation.

Salesforce was born in 1999, launched by former Oracle sales executive Marc Benioff. Some analysts (myself included) formed an initial impression that Benioff, a brash showman not unlike Larry Ellison, formed the startup to tactically exploit the hosted CRM market focusing on small and mid-sized customers. A decade ago, that was a niche opportunity that Oracle was far too big to serve.

Benioff would gain some traction in the CRM space, we predicted, and then sell within a few years—probably back to Oracle, but if not, to SAP, IBM or another IT-industry giant. If Oracle were the buyer, Benioff would be well-positioned as Ellison’s eventual successor at Oracle’s helm.

Yes, I still predict that Oracle or another large firm will acquire Salesforce; my estimate is that it’ll happen within five years. But while the company’s CRM assets are essential because subscriber fees drive substantial revenue, the real intellectual property will be in Salesforce’s cloud technology.

The revenue is growing nicely. According to Salesforce’s fiscal first-quarter results, covering January to March 2010, the quarter’s revenue was US$376.8 million, an increase of 24% over the same period in 2009. Subscription and support revenues made up nearly all of that, coming to $351 million; the rest was professional service. While that’s paltry compared to Oracle’s first-quarter 2010 revenues of $5.1 billion, it’s nothing to sneeze at.

There’s no sneezing at Salesforce’s market cap either, which was $10.74 billion in late May, with a price/earnings ratio of 134.17. By comparison, Oracle’s market cap is $112.12 billion, with a P/E of 19.96.

What’s driving the market cap? The cloud. Of course, as a hosted CRM service, Salesforce has always lived in the cloud, even before the term gained widespread currency. What distinguished Salesforce years ago from other hosted software companies (and linked it to much-larger cloud pioneers like Amazon and Google) is that the company realized that its hosting infrastructure and database engine could be leveraged by its customers for running custom software. Initially, most custom software was coupled tightly to the CRM service, but increasingly the capability has taken on a life of its own and has attracted customers beyond Salesforce’s traditional installed base.

So, while cloud service fees are only a small part of Salesforce’s current revenue stream today, it represents the leading edge of the company’s innovation and attraction. To be blunt, that’s the only reason why we cover Salesforce in SD Times, because hosted CRM isn’t an area of interest to the typical enterprise developer or ISV software engineer.

Look at what Salesforce has done with the cloud. It’s gone beyond its simple Apex and Visualforce programming languages (designed to create add-ins to the CRM system) to a richer environment, called, that’s trying to appeal to all enterprise developers. The company moved into collaboration with its new Chatter system. It created an application store, AppExchange, to let developers choose from prewritten tools and services. It supports rich Internet apps using Flash, CSS and JavaScript. Most recently, the company has partnered with VMware to host a subset of Java EE within the cloud.

Balance sheet notwithstanding, is no longer about CRM. To my earlier prediction that the company will be acquired with five years, let me add two more. First, its name no longer fits. I see a name-change within the next two years. And as for that stock ticket, NYSE:CRM, that’s gotta go. It looks like NYSE:CLWD is available.

Marc Benioff, you know where to send the chocolate.

Alan Zeichick is editorial director of SD Times. Follow him on Twitter at Read his blog at