SAP: Best Run or Run Away?

News Analysis: Many view SAP as a stodgy company that made its name in the big software era. Now, with the rise of mobility and cloud computing, SAP needs to change the way it does business in order to thrive. Can it? The company's Sapphire Now conference offers some clues to SAP's future.

ORLANDO, Fla.-A question heavy as the humidity outside hangs over the Sapphire Now conference here: Will the best-run businesses keep running SAP (as the company's slogan goes)? Or will they run away from SAP? It's a fair, scary question, one not far from the minds and lips of SAP executives, customers and madly tweeting pundits worldwide. IDC analyst Henry Morris put it smartly during the opening broadcast on May 18: Enterprises, Morris said, must ask, "Will SAP continue to be the cornerstone of my operations? Or something that I contain while I branch out (to other vendors)?"

The answer rests on this: whether a four-decade-old global titan, widely seen as a stodgy, controlling, arrogant exemplar of a vanishing age of big software, really can evolve and thrive in an new, open era of cloud computing, mobility and light-speed analytics. If SAP does so, it will be among the most dramatic updates of an IT vendor since IBM in the early 1990s. If it cannot, we may see the sad spectacle of a once-great software giant slowly fading into the background. Nobody wants that, least of all the thousands of businesses worldwide that have spent billions and staked enterprise fortunes-some literally-on SAP.

SAP execs, predictably, say they can pull it off. Earnest proclamations to that effect echoed through the day's keynotes.

"We want every customer we do business with to be a best-run business," said Co-CEO Bill McDermott.

Speaking "straight from the SAP heart" about the first 100 days of his joint tenure, McDermott met the elephant head-on. "Let me make the message clear: The trust you put in us is everything to us. Trust and success must come one customer at time, one business at a time, one consumer at a time. With trust and support we will make the world run better."

Slight grandiosity aside, McDermott and Co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe, via satellite from Frankfurt, made a pretty good case. Basically: SAP innovated successfully in the mainframe era and in the client server era, and will innovate again during the current "inflection point" in IT. It will do so by offering powerful capabilities three ways: on customer premises, on demand and on mobile devices.

To read about SAP's acquisition of Sybase, click here.

"We want choice for customers," Snabe explained. "We don't want to lock you into one stack." The goal is to create a seamless platform for innovation, enabling renewable business and neat new "any time, anywhere" applications such as advanced real-time analytics in the palm of your hand. Concluded Snabe: "We are ready, ladies and gentlemen, to take that lead again."