Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff kicked off this week's huge Dreamforce conference in San Francisco today by publicly chatting one-on-one with a top executive from bitter rival Microsoft, something he thought would never happen.
On having someone from Microsoft on stage with him at Dreamforce, Benioff could only say: "It's a shock."
The Salesforce CEO was joined by Tony Prophet, Microsoft's Corporate Vice President for Windows Marketing, at the start of the major cloud conference which is expected to draw 135,000 attendees this week. Benioff revealed during his conversation with Prophet, that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella personally selected the Windows leader to be his company's representative at Dreamforce.
"This is an event I just couldn't miss this year," said Prophet, drawing knowing chuckles from the sold-out crowd at the Yerba Buena Theater.
Today's personal appearance of the Microsoft executive with Benioff follows a noticeable thawing in the relationship between the two fierce competitors. Earlier this year, the companies formed a partnership to integrate Salesforce CRM (customer relationship management) software with Microsoft's Office 365 and Windows Azure cloud platform.
"This will go down as one of the great, great partnerships in the technology industry," Prophet declared.
Microsoft's decision to embrace Salesforce shows that the software giant's new leadership is moving towards a model of reaching out to rivals who might help move their business forward.
Benioff's comments today seemed to reinforce a belief that new faces in Microsoft's executive suite were the primary reason for allowing him to share a stage at his own conference with Prophet. "There's a new Microsoft," said Benioff.
One of the keys to the thaw in the rivalry may well be the ascension to the Microsoft board chairman position by former Symantec leader John Thompson in 2012. Benioff referenced a joint appearance the two made together in 1995 and they have remained friends since.
Benioff called it "astonishing" that Thompson was now chairman of Prophet's company and noted that the beginning of better relations between the two competitors started with a call from Thompson himself. "I'd never had a call like that from Microsoft," said Benioff.
For his part, Prophet described Microsoft's motivation for their partnership with Salesforce as part of the company's strategy to build more scaled platforms that are open. Referring to "walled" or proprietary systems without naming any specific companies, Prophet pointed out that many firms who followed that path "did not survive."
Prophet also gave the audience some information about Windows 10, saying that Microsoft had released a preview to customers two weeks ago. "Of course, we brought the start menu back," said Prophet to laughter from the audience, many of whom knew that the company had taken a great deal of heat for removing the icon in Windows 8.
Benioff also generated a response from the gathering when he asked Prophet: "What happened to Windows 9?"
"It came and went," said Prophet, alluding to Microsoft's belief that Windows 10 represents such a major leap forward, they decided not to take the incremental step and just went to double digits.
Prophet told Benioff that "it rings hollow if you don't have a relationship with the recognized leader in the cloudforce world." Benioff may have been shocked to be sharing the stage with Microsoft today, but he couldn't have been unhappy.