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.
“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.”
Grounds for Optimism
And while some would say SAP’s wow-factor peaked around the time the Berlin wall fell, there are current grounds for optimism. To wit:
Good financials: SAP had a strong first quarter, with profits up 81 percent over a year earlier.
The Sybase acquisition: The May 12 announcement involving an industry-leading mobile platform provided SAP with important new credibility for its emerging mobility story. SAP says it will run “this crown jewel” as a separate business that will transform m-business, m-commerce and m-payments, among others.
New products: Talk and new big initiatives like “Innovations 2010” are fine, but at some point, you need new products. BusinessObjects Explorer, integrating collaboration and Google-like search, is a good example from 2009 of the kind of innovation SAP needs to make commonplace. Ditto BusinessObjects Explorer on an iPad, shown the week of May 17. The vaunted “in-memory” analytics are intriguing but SAP needs to do a better job of explaining business benefits.
New appreciation of channels and ecosystem partners: The May 17 announcement of the long-awaited Business ByDesign on-demand offerings for small and midsize businesses underscored the heightened importance of partners. Expect more high-profile deals soon, said Doug Merritt, executive vice president of On-Demand Solutions, especially with new SAAS (software as a service) and on-demand partners.
New appreciation of customers: Are SAP’s 97,000 customers an underutilized resource? Most companies would kill for the global who’s-who that SAP serves. But beyond ubiquitous billboards and airport ads proclaiming, “XYX Runs SAP,” customers don’t hear enough. Too bad. That may be changing, though. Marquee customers like Kraft, Lockheed, Colgate Palmolive and scores of others featured prominently in more Sapphire sessions. Senior Vice President Nina Simosko and Vice President Aaron Pratt are in the early stages of redefining ways to better organize top customers with an eye toward, among other things, sparking mutual innovation. Stay tuned.
Forrester Research analyst Paul Hamerman agreed the next 12 months will be crucial for SAP. Usability of Web clients remains an issue, and the company will need to deliver new products on time. But he cautioned against being overly dramatic. “People aren’t going to rip out SAP systems,” he noted.
Still, chats with users quickly reveal the big challenges ahead. Take Partha Biswas, the bright and energetic CIO and vice president of Joerns Healthcare, a maker of specialty beds. A former SAP hater turned convert, he’s eager to tell how SAP BI and ERP helped enable rapid company growth, from $150 million to $200 million since 2008. So enthusiastic is Biswas that he’s presenting his company’s story later this week at Sapphire. Yet he said he wonders about the depth of SAP’s commitment to cloud. He is, for now, “cautiously optimistic.”
In fairness, SAP does seem to be changing, however slowly. A small but telling personal example: When I attended my first Sapphire in Madrid in 1998, PR flacks shadowed me virtually everywhere, day and night. I had to shake them, spy-like, to speak uninhibited with an actual customer. In contrast, SAP PR at the current show was helpful and unobtrusive. I wandered freely, chatting with customers at the SAP User Group unimpeded. Small, but telling.
“This is a significant moment in IT history,” Hagemann Snabe told the listeners. He said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the recession is easing and that customers are interested in growing (read: making major investments) again. My take: If a major evolution of SAP is going to happen, North America probably must lead the way. Whether SAP’s management in Walldorf, Germany, can convince the company and its partners to keep stepping up, and whether it can keep opening up and ease off its habitual uber-control, will determine which way customers run. I am cautiously optimistic.
Editor’s Note: Joe Maglitta is vice president and editorial director for Ziff Davis Enterprise‘s Market Strategies and Content Services.