Salesforce.com opened up its annual Dreamforce conference by previewing Salesforce Chatter, a social networking application the vendor dubbed a "Facebook for the Enterprise."

The upcoming release bundles a variety of familiar features, such as personal profiles, real time feeds from contacts and applications, groups and alerts. It can also integrate with Google Apps, the popular Twitter microblogging service and Facebook.

Salesforce.com is also providing a set of APIs (application programming interfaces) for tying other applications to Chatter. It will also be available on Windows Mobile devices, iPhones and Blackberries. The system will employ the same underlying security and sharing model as other applications built with the company's Force.com development platform.

Chatter will be available "early next year," CEO Marc Benioff said during a keynote address. It will be included in paid editions of Salesforce CRM and Force.com, and also available as a Chatter Edition that also includes Salesforce Content and Force.com for $50 (£30) per user per month.

Much of the marathon three hour opening keynote was devoted to recapping various announcements from earlier this year. But Benioff reserved the final and brightest spotlight for Chatter, calling it the company's "biggest breakthrough ever."

He praised earlier generation collaboration technologies, such as Lotus Notes and online meeting software, but said one "has to stop in awe" at "phenomenons" like Facebook and Twitter.

Meanwhile, Twitter users expressed mixed reactions to the announcement. One termed Chatter "a bit Mickey Mouse" and another said she could picture "executives running away screaming." Others, though, were much more bullish: "Chatter is potentially huge - depends on how they open it to non-Salesforce customers."

While Chatter's general premise isn't new, Salesforce.com's entry raises the competitive stakes for the many small, specialised vendors hoping to sell social networking platforms into enterprises. Moreover, social networking capabilities are a natural counterpart to CRM (customer relationship management) systems like Salesforce.com's, given the latter's emphasis on continuous communication with customers and suppliers.

The announcement was also in many ways inevitable, said Ray Wang, a partner with the analyst firm Altimeter Group. "Customers have been expecting Salesforce.com to do something like this. It's something that had to happen. The market is moving so fast in these areas. It's necessary for them to keep up."

While it took a decade for email to gain widespread adoption, Twitter and Facebook needed only a couple of years to get hot, Wang added.