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Can Salesforce AI with Einstein catch the next AI wave?

Salesforce Einstein is the next installment of intelligent sales, marketing and service systems -- but this is one of numerous Salesforce acquisitions. How will it fare?

Salesforce is betting big that the long-promised attributes of artificial intelligence are ready to go mainstream and can help fuel the company's next chapter of unprecedented growth. With a spate of acquisitions during the past eight months and analytics tools built into its platform, Salesforce wants to bring new systems of intelligence to customers.

During the past two years, after touting the advantages of its Salesforce Wave Analytics platform, the vendor has been on a buying spree to scoop up a cross section of companies and talented teams. The company's goal: to embed artificial intelligence (AI) into every aspect of its operations and offerings, under the name Einstein.

The vendor's marketing team is already stoking its PR engine to create plenty of buzz around the idea of the new Salesforce AI platform powering a fresh generation of smart services that will challenge IBM's Watson's analytic capabilities. The steady stream of news reports, interviews with CEO Marc Benioff and behind-the-scenes briefings are helping to build anticipation for Salesforce's annual Dreamforce conference in October.

Anyone who has been in the industry for a few decades is likely familiar with -- and fascinated by -- the resurgence of the AI concept. Artificial intelligence has been around for a long time, and gained significant attention during the 1980s and 1990s with the innovations surrounding software development and Moore's law. Despite the tremendous accomplishments during this era, which transformed the way many industries operated, the hype faded and many considered AI a failure. The reality is that the machine-to-machine advancements of the past decade have been powered by the first generation of AI developments.

The cloud, open source software and a variety of other recent technological developments have combined to create a new generation of AI technologies that Salesforce, Microsoft and Oracle are suggesting can be embedded into everything. This has helped to fuel today's interest in the internet of things.

Yet, it is seldom that the buzzword-happy industry of technology resurrects an old term, like AI, to promote new market possibilities. And now AI is being viewed as the critical component for improving the operating efficiency, customer engagement and product/service quality of organizations throughout every industry.

With its steady stream of acquisitions, the vision of a Salesforce AI platform is being aggressively pursued. The company has made more than $4 billion in acquisitions in 2016, including paying $110 million for BeyondCore LLC, an enterprise analytics company, in July. During the past eight months, Salesforce has also acquired natural language processing startup MetaMind; data center analytics startup Coolan; data-entry automation developer Implisit Insights; and PredictionIO, an opensource-based machine learning server vendor. Salesforce also picked up RelateIQ for $390 million in 2014.

These acquisitions are in addition to Salesforce's previous purchases aimed at fortifying the company's functional capabilities and infusing its staff with fresh ideas that can create a new set of cloud-based tools. The purchases are also meant to upgrade the company's own internal operations to support its rapidly expanding portfolio.

Salesforce has helped to set the bar for the value of analytics in the software as a service market by embedding management dashboards into its basic applications years ago. It has not only continued to enhance its own basic features, but it has also encouraged third-party developers to offer their own analytic applications that can bolt onto Salesforce solutions.

In addition, Salesforce has promoted the virtues of its customers, becoming more data savvy, and offered them the opportunity to become citizen developers with its low and no-code development platform.

Salesforce has also used acquisitions to add the cloud to its corporate offerings, including ExactTarget, which it uses to power its Marketing Cloud and Demandware to push into e-commerce. The company also purchased configure, price and quote provider SteelBrick for $360 million.

Although it has worked to promote the 360-degree, comprehensive view of the customer to enable businesses to better understand their needs, Salesforce has not yet succeeded in fully integrating all of its acquisitions into a single platform that can see across all the functional areas it is now addressing. This has made it even harder for its sales team to upsell and cross-sell all the new offerings without a heavy dose of professional services from its consulting partners.

Salesforce continues to report impressive financial results, but it issued a warning in its latest quarterly briefing that sales could slow in the future. While it may be sandbagging Wall Street's expectations, there is no question that the hope is that the assets can be melded together to form a new Salesforce AI portfolio of powerful resources that can make the company's cloud products smarter, and strengthen its internal operations so it can continue to extend its lead in the marketplace. 

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