The mobile enterprise app tipping point is here: Can business tech learn UI?

The mobile enterprise app tipping point is here: Can business tech learn UI?

Summary: Technology executives flocked to enterprise mobility demonstrations at SAP Sapphire. What remains to be seen is whether user interfaces will matter for the enterprise and all the vendors courting IT buyers.

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The interest in mobile enterprise applications was obvious at SAP Sapphire this week. In fact, it was impossible to miss the throngs of technology executives huddled around the mobility demonstrations at various booths on the conference floor.

SAP executives---co-CEOs Bill McDermott and Jim Hagemann Snabe as well as a bevy of others---were clearly positioning for a post PC world. The enterprise terminal of the future is a tablet or smartphone. McDermott noted that he can run the company from an iPad as he showed off how Avon brings inventory data---from an SAP back-end system of course---to reps and consumers.

Meanwhile, SAP's purchase of Sybase is making more sense by the minute. Sybase brings the mobility mojo to the table. SAP brings the systems of records. Sybase's platform extends those systems to mobile devices. Toss in in-memory capabilities and analytics and it's clear SAP has an interesting story to tell. It's also a story that other enterprise application vendors may have a tough time replicating. Gallery: SAP, Sybase mobile apps

Indeed, SAP did its part and rolled out a bevy of mobile applications. These apps, which will be generally available in a few months, cover human resources, procurement, finance and sales. Many of these apps will be reskinned for customers. The company can now turn apps around for Android and iOS tablets in days not weeks. Research in Motion is another key partner. In the end, HTML 5 will be SAP's bridge to all devices.

Toss in deals with Accenture and it's clear that enterprise software tentacles will reach apps.

What remains to be seen is whether user interfaces will matter for the enterprise and all the vendors courting IT buyers. Among the key questions:

  • Do business technology vendors have UI chops?
  • Can these technology providers garner enthusiasm among workers like Angry Birds does for consumers?
  • Is the power of enterprise mobility the data and analytics in the field or the UI that's so good that most users don't even notice?
  • Will mobile interfaces be screwed up by customers who can’t avoid the temptation to customize like they do with enterprise apps?
  • What can these business technology giants learn from the consumer market?

For instance, SAP charges for Sybase's Unwired platform. The consumer playbook would be to give that away for free, license apps for a few bucks a month and dominate the market. Can SAP go there? Should it?

Of the enterprise mobility questions, UI seems to be the more interesting one to me. The UI issue hit me over the head at SAP's Innojam this week. Teams from around the world were charged with taking SAP's HANA analytics appliance and create what could be a future product.

I was seated in the back with Vinnie Mirchandani playing Simon Cowell and chuckling at how Microsoft's Excel and Office remains such a big UI metaphor for a lot of SAPers. If you want to get oohs and aahs out of an SAP crowd just show off real-time enterprise data being calculated in a spreadsheet. And if you can send a chart via Outlook there were UI orgasms all around.

At the Innojam powwow it was clear that UI is a work in progress. Granted, developers only had 30 hours to work on the project, but the UIs showed everything that was right and wrong with enterprise software.

The issue: Out of 12 demonstrations---all of which were designed to show off SAP's HANA's real-time in-memory analytics---only one could be construed for a user interface for the masses. That interface in a project dubbed Prajnaa was deadly simple---it was a simple box. That box could crunch anything you wanted about the company in real-time and serve up whatever you searched for. There were no clunky reports and no set views.

Of course the developers behind the Prajnaa demonstration---Ganesh Vaitheeswaran and Arindam Bhattacharjee--had to show how easy it was to send data from the application via Outlook, but other than that it was clearly the winner of the night.

Prajnaa's demo abstract looked like this:

Prajnaa provides a Google-like “One- click, Search-to-BI” experience where the user “Discovers” and “Understands” the data space instead of just navigating through it. Users submit a search query and get “information blocks” that display the matching data and analyzed insights using best-practices visualization. The in-memory, columnar store in HANA is used to analyze and aggregate huge amounts of data and provide ultra-fast results.

That Prajnaa could be used on any device. During another presentation one observer remarked that "you shouldn't be able to see code" during the demonstration. That's UI rule No. 1 kids. However, if enterprise vendors get this UI thing mastered the data these software applications control will be the big differentiator. The idea is to get workers the data and analytics they need quickly and in an interface that fades away.

On the mobile front, enterprise software has a great crutch. Apple's iOS provides templates to make the UI consistent. In other words, enterprise vendors can only screw up so much. SAP's Ian Kimbell, a vice president better known as "demo boy," said that mobile apps are focused on a business need. Suites are deconstructed into shopping carts, travel approvals and sales goals. Each business need will get an app by role including an oil and gas company taking tank inventories, maintenance history and reporting them via a tablet.

"We can churn apps out quickly and let the customer decide what adds business value," said Kimbell. SAP will have 40 to 50 mobile apps and some customers---such as four hospitals using an electronic medical record app---are trialing them already. “We have a standard look and feel for our apps,” said Kimbell.

For enterprise software, a UI that's simplistic and barely noticed will be a sea change. Here's to hoping we get there.

Topics: SAP, Apps, Banking, Enterprise Software, Mobility, Software, Wi-Fi

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  • RE: The mobile enterprise app tipping point is here: Can business tech learn UI?

    As much as I hate to admit it, for the non-computer science oriented among us,aka unclean masses, these toys are perfect. A CEO stating that he can run his company from one is less a statement of actual productivity and more so of it looking cool and making the other deskbound CEOs jealous though. From a very serious perspective though these devices rely heavily on wireless - which is inherently insecure. Also consider that your average handheld device isn't a processing power house which will limit the lengths they can go for encryption. Finally factor in the ease of physical theft and loss for abit of additional spice and these little novelties open up a wide variety of attack vectors in a world where nation states are starting to discover that corporate espionage is highly profitable. I don't know that you could really be SOX or HIPPA compliant with one of these devices, I'm sort of skeptical and hope you can't honestly which limits their usefulness - they aren't approved for secure gov't communications (except for RIM) either. All said I think there are some applications for this sort of thing - like the Sales dept. but for folks who actually work with computers for a living no. Graphics artists, programmers, network admins, and hackers will likely stick with our trusty desktops.
    ITSamurai
    • RE: The mobile enterprise app tipping point is here: Can business tech learn UI?

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  • RE: The mobile enterprise app tipping point is here: Can business tech learn UI?

    Very good question and very good post. Thank you Larry.
    Ram U
  • RE: The mobile enterprise app tipping point is here: Can business tech learn UI?

    SAP can't even produce a half decent desktop GUI or web GUI. I would like to see them start there and then work their way down to device targeted thin clients.
    putty.master
  • SAP is the master of incomprehensibility

    So any little improvement is bound to be good. But people can't overlook security. If the CEO's statement about running the company from his iPad was true, then it would a simple matter to hijack him and make millions or wreak havoc.

    Apps don't benefit office workers nearly as much as they do field people and casual users. Everybody from auto mechanics to zoologists can benefit from not being tied to a desktop or laptop. The first steps were just being connected to the internet, mail and reference materials. The backend business system is just one more step.
    terry flores
  • RE: The mobile enterprise app tipping point is here: Can business tech learn UI?

    Take a look at the future. It's here today: www.renderprise.com
    mkucera
  • RE: The mobile enterprise app tipping point is here: Can business tech learn UI?

    Designing good intuitive UI is not as simple as it may sound. It has taken years for Microsoft to craft and hone Excel, SharePoint and SQL Analytics/BI products to deliver an intuitive experience that is both powerful and customizable for those who want or need it (not to mention secure). Although SAP may wish to deliver similar experiences, it won't happen overnight and it will take dedication. Thanks Larry for your insight and analysis here.
    Hillabeens