This week Microsoft announced a partnership with Adobe and SAP called the Open Data Initiative, designed to help businesses make better use of their customer data.

The Cupertino giant wants to “enable a new level of business insight”, it says. What this means in practice is that it wants to make it easier for its customers to look at, move, and analyse their own customer information.

“Say goodbye to complex, costly disconnected data silos and the need to depend on intermediaries to extract value from your data—and realize your data’s full potential”, the marketing spiel reads.

It also says that the Open Data Initiative will take advantage of artificial intelligence and give businesses more control over its own data.

What it hopes to do with these things is help businesses turn data that they hold on their customers into more business. Microsoft bosses, right up to Satya Nadella at the top, have spoken about this at length in recent years.

The company has clearly signalled a move away from its traditional revenue streams and towards a focus on helping businesses. Its mission statement – often trumpeted at its conferences, is now “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more”.

SAP has also taken steps towards taking further advantage of the CRM market recently, expanding its offering away from just ERP services.

That’s two quite different organisations entering into a similar market. And there’s others, too. Enterprise storage firm Box, at its conference earlier this year, spoke at length about “changing the way we work”. Storage isn’t just about storage, the company insisted – it’s about working together.

At that conference, the firm’s CEO and cofounder Aaron Levie said of the current problems that exist in businesses: “It’s really hard to get work done, because whichever part of a business you’re in, you have to go to a different repository. Our processes are fundamentally disconnected”.

That sounds remarkably similar to those “costly disconnected silos” that Microsoft said the Open Data Initiative will help to move workers away from.

Why now?

It seems fairly clear that big tech companies are seeing the value in helping businesses of all kinds better serve their customers. If data is now the most important asset in a company’s arsenal, the ability to get insights out of that data must be a close second.

If the big tech companies can tap into that desire – to be more efficient, to close deals faster and find new custom where they didn’t previously know it existed – all while adhering to the new rules of data regulation, they’re in a good place.

If they can do that while assuring their business customers that consumers will trust that their data is being looked after – something Microsoft refers to in its Open Data Initiative product information – then that’s all the better too.

There are lots of tools and ways of getting more out of customer data, but the most established and most obvious is a CRM system. For some time now, Salesforce has been the leader in that market. It brought SaaS to the mainstream and is near-ubiquitous on sales floors.

It’s clearly a big company but is dwarfed by the serious Silicon Valley big boys. With a market capitalisation of around $120 billion compared to Microsoft’s (May) figure of nearly $750 billion, its pockets are deep, but not as deep as some others.

The power of partnerships

It’s perhaps no surprise then, that it recently partnered with Apple on an integration with iOS. The pair say that they want to “enable powerful new mobile apps for business”.

Through the partnership, Salesforce will redesign its app for the mobile platform, with new features on iOS. The two companies will also provide “tools and resources” for Salesforce developers to build their own native apps with a new Salesforce Mobile software development kit for iOS.

The relative merits of the Microsoft/Adobe/SAP and Salesforce/Apple partnerships will undoubtedly be debated elsewhere. What it illustrates, at the very least, is the power of shared data and pursuing business partnerships to protect from larger competitors.

Partnerships are also useful tools in the pursuit of bigger goals, like dominance of the cloud market – it’s no coincidence that the diagram illustrating the components of the Open Data Initiative is literally underlined by Azure. Only time will tell who will triumph.

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