SAP Looks to ‘Change the Game’

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Executives from enterprise application provider SAP have been throwing around words and phrases such as "co-innovation," "power unleashed," and "game-changing" to describe the company’s latest initiatives. During May’s Sapphire 2008, the company’s annual user gathering, 15,000 attendees in Orlando, Fla., listened as SAP executives reinforced their view of the future of business -- and CRM -- with forward-looking keynotes and sneak peeks at upcoming offerings.

Paul Greenberg, president of CRM consultancy The 56 Group (and a CRM columnist), believes SAP’s patter about progressing and shifting with the organic business atmosphere is more than mere talk: The company’s backing up its claims, he says. In the last 12 months, he adds, "SAP actually transformed its thinking, roadmap, application strategy -- and its way of focusing on customers. The deep commitment is clearly real." So real, in fact, that Greenberg believes SAP has reinserted itself back into the battle for CRM 2.0 supremacy. "One year ago, I’d say the leaders for CRM 2.0 would be Salesforce.com and Zoho," he recalls. "Now, you have to include Oracle and SAP."

On the other hand, Ray Wang, principal analyst at Forrester Research, says he believes that while SAP is taking steps toward being Web 2.0–friendly, only time will tell if the German giant will reap the rewards. "I think [SAP is] getting there," he explains. "I think some of the new features they’ve done [will] improve collaboration and take advantage of more Web 2.0 features."

A major point emphasized throughout the conference was the extension of the partnership between SAP and Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian wireless communications provider behind the development of BlackBerry mobile devices. Just days before, they had unveiled a version of the latest SAP CRM software rebuilt to natively integrate with the BlackBerry. When asked during a Sapphire roundtable discussion if SAP had plans in the works to also operate with other mobile devices such as Apple’s iPhone, SAP CRM Vice President of Solution Marketing Vinay Iyer did not rule out any possibilities. Though he admitted that SAP programmers had downloaded the iPhone software development kit, he concluded that the iPhone is just not ready for the enterprise yet. (NetSuite and Salesforce.com are among those that disagree.)

SAP executives declined to set a precise date for the offering’s general availability, but Wang says a BlackBerry-native application of SAP -- not just accessing CRM on a phone-based Web browser -- is a key differentiator. "Being able to platform things on RIM as well as other applications is going to give SAP a real edge," he adds.

Another development that Wang feels wasn’t talked about enough at Sapphire was SAP’s growing ecosystem with customers, partners, and users. "[The ecosystem] was given less credit by most people during the show," he argues. "The key thing is that [SAP’s] ecosystem continues to expand." Greenberg agrees, thinking that SAP has finally grasped the value that collaboration can have for all parties involved. "[The] ‘management of customers’ is no longer management, but engagement," he says.

Wang also characterized SAP’s decision to put a 12-to-18-month delay on the launch of its midmarket-oriented Business ByDesign software as a good move. "I think it’s smart to realize that you might have potential issues, and to slow down and come back [in order to] focus in on certain markets and engineering," he says.

The stars may be starting to align for SAP, but while Wang believes Sapphire showed plenty of promising future technology, he suggests that not enough emphasis was placed on the company’s execution. "The demo you saw with CRM showed you what could be possible, but it isn’t something that’s available yet," he explains. "When you look at it, you can see where this vision is going. But when you actually went down to the show floor and talked to customers and systems integrators, you [heard that] they had some success in terms of putting these pieces together. If SAP would elevate more of those stories in CRM or other areas, customers would say, ‘Hey, look -- I want to do that, too.’ "  

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