Is SAP's Web move too late?

Although the Web has been mined by most application vendors, SAP is just getting started.

Anyone who has ever had to sit down and write an organisation chart can have some sympathy for the appalling task that SAP has set itself.

The confusing world of business contains enormous numbers of people. Most of them, most of the time, are up to something. This makes even a simple task like creating an organisation chart incredibly painful. No sooner have you get everyone neatly pencilled into their tight little boxes, when interdepartmental relationships, overlapping areas of responsibility, and on-the-hoof strategy reviews turn that neat diagram into a horrible scribble.

SAP has set itself the much more ambitious task of mapping a huge array of business processes, and then building a set of integrated applications that speed up and simplify the execution of these processes. Butterfly-net-wielding consultants implementing SAP have to capture factory workers and supervisors and accountants, pin down whatever it is they do, then recreate those roles, functions, and processes in exhaustingly extensible templates.

If that wasn't bad enough, the technical foundations upon which SAP is built -- the traditional two-tier client server architecture -- began to wobble when the full benefits of standards-based Internet architectures were finally understood. This allowed PeopleSoft and upstart Web services-based vendors like Salesforce.com to argue that SAP had missed the boat. Adding Web interfaces to its existing software would never provide the core flexibility of a native Web architecture, they claimed.

In pure technology terms, they were right. Ideally you'd build a Web services architecture from the ground up. In practice, it may not matter that much. SAP's customers don't care about technology for its own sake, and lots of the larger clients move carefully and are in no rush to pioneer next-generation Web services. This has given the company the chance to adopt both the rhetoric and reality of the Web services future.

At this year's Sapphire user conference in New Orleans, the company served up a big slice of the marketing-speak its smaller rivals have been preaching -- so much so that PeopleSoft CEO Craig Conway accused SAP CEO Henning Kagermann of stealing some of his material for his keynote. SAP promised to simplify its offering and work better to integrate its stuff with other vendors' software. It also pledged to gradually swap out its ugly old three-piece-suite client server for a series of cuddly Web services using its NetWeaver development framework. NetWeaver is a name almost comically infused with the homespun Internet glamour SAP has been so sorely lacking: you can just see SAP's developers in sandals at their Net looms, weaving their brightly coloured Web quilts. Monolithic? Moi?

Talking to some SAP customers in the U.K. this week was a useful reminder of how far away CEOs can get from the concerns of their customers. For Brian Noble, technical services manager at Wine Cellar, the big issue recently has been moving his two AS/400 servers from his existing hosting facility to its new one -- Web services are way down the list compared to where his computers are actually going to live and how they're going to get there. The next items on his list are a head office move, and plans to upgrade to newer versions of the software which offer better support for promotions management. Even customers working with the new system are more concerned with the prosaic side: Darrol Radley, head of SAP support at Homebase, has just completed rolling out SAP's Web portal, which enables Homebase staff to input customer orders on the shop floor via wireless handsets.

In some ways this is what NetWeaver is really about. The power of ubiquitous Web technology is simply too good to ignore, for developers and for customers. He points out that most staff could be trained to take orders via the new interface in less than 10 minutes.

"In the pilot phase we watched a member of staff being trained, when a customer came up with a request. He broke off from the training, and served the customer successfully via the new interface. It's given us a real insight into the value of using the portal," said Radley.

"Moving to NetWeaver is on our agenda for the next couple of years, but it isn't at the top of the our agenda, it isn't being driven by business demand," he said.

SAP's rivals will argue that the company's conversion to the Net is too little, too late. I suspect most of SAP's customers are way behind, which gives their ERP supplier time to keep turning the tanker.