IBM Returns to the Desktop Interface Bandwagon, and Coopetition with SAP Abounds

A little over a year ago, IBM tried one of its end runs around its partner SAP and announced a plan to provide Lotus Notes users with direct access to SAP’s R/3. While clearly intended to capitalize on phenomena like Duet – the Microsoft/SAP offering that makes Office a front-end to SAP’s Business Suite – Notes for SAP was also notable for the lack of cooperation between IBM and SAP on the deal.

A little over a year ago, IBM tried one of its end runs around its partner SAP and announced a plan to provide Lotus Notes users with direct access to SAP’s R/3. While clearly intended to capitalize on phenomena like Duet – the Microsoft/SAP offering that makes Office a front-end to SAP’s Business Suite – Notes for SAP was also notable for the lack of cooperation between IBM and SAP on the deal. The initiative largely failed, for reasons that IBM is loathe to discuss (there are apparently some customers doing something with Notes and R/3, but, in a market where the slightest win can be made to look like an unprecedented triumph, IBM’s coyness about the initiative says all that needs to be said about its success).

So this week IBM is trying again, this time with SAP’s full cooperation, with the announcement of Atlantic, which is designed to take the latest version of Notes and stick it on top of the latest version of SAP, for the betterment of desktop users everywhere. Atlantic is an interesting code name, considering its competitive predecessor, Duet, was code-named Mendocino, a little town very much nestled on the Pacific coast. Any chance the choice of Atlantic was a coincidence?

The details on what Atlantic will actually do have been relatively sparse, but it will follow the initial Duet formula in providing HR-centric functionality like travel approvals and the like. This is a far cry from where Duet has gone in the last year, and is also rather limited considered what Microsoft’s internal desktop to ERP initiative, Office Business Applications, is capable of. Duet and OBA are both moving up the food chain into much more complex and strategic processes than Atlantic is slated for when it finally hits the ground some time late this year. Kind of makes the Atlantic announcement look not only very me-too, but also a little late to the game, considering there was supposedly more than a year of experience from the early Notes to SAP product that should have gotten IBM off to a much faster start.

All of which once again begs the question of what IBM is up to creeping into SAP’s markets. While cooperation is the primary motivation, so the official story goes, there’s way to much competition between these two partners for Atlantic to be seen in a purely cooperative light. This is partly due to IBM’s growing habit of challenging SAP in the applications market, even as IBM continues to pretend it’s not an applications company.

In addition to the Cognos acquisition, which followed hard on SAP’s acquisition of Business Objects, IBM has been dipping into direct competition with SAP on a regular basis. The company made a recent announcement about helping customers in the SAP upgrade market that was clearly an attempt at stealing customers from SAP’s own upgrade business, and IBM’s acquisition of MRO Software, Trigo, and others are all putting IBM on a direct collision course with SAP in the applications space, protestations of partnership notwithstanding.

And so one has to ask whether Atlantic is really intended to help IBM’s partnership with SAP or hurt it. Considering how well Duet has been doing, despite rumors of its demise, and the prominent role it will play in the new Business Objects business unit at SAP, it’s hard to look at Atlantic and not see yet another reason for SAP to worry about how close it can get to IBM without getting its wings singed. Atlantic may be good for some Notes users, but it stands to be much more about helping IBM keep those users from slipping into a Duet solution that would give SAP more account control. But how good Atlantic really is for SAP and its users is still to be determined.

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