SAP Mobile: inching towards the rest of the world

SAP is getting its mobile act together. But it is taking time and it is proving a rocky journey.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

I'm at SAPPHIRE/SAPTechEd Madrid and for the first time in a while, SAP has managed to get (half way) through a large customer event without causing serious alarms in the minds of customers and partners. Mostly. In our executive meetings, my team has been concentrating mostly upon mobile and the SAP Store since that is something that has exercised many of us as a story we have found difficult and often at odds with the rest of the industry. That is changing but as always, it's changing the SAP way. Mostly.

Here's how the story pans out:

At SAPPHIRE Orlando, SAP showed a slew of proof of concept apps. I liked what I saw at the time but immediately thought about the business model. SAP was pimping the idea of the Sybase Unwired Platform as the springboard for what they will offer. That hasn't changed, and, true to form, SAP is expecting its large customers to pony up mega bucks to take the platform. A couple of months back, SAP told me the mobile pipeline was running at around $500 million, a fact confirmed by Bill McDermott at the last earnings call. At the time I wondered where that number comes from. Now it is clear - it's SUP and not much else.

Today the story takes another step forward. Eric Lai succinctly sets out SAP's position in an advertorial on Forbes. He makes great play of the fact that SAP is showcasing 50 SAP and SUP certified apps at this event and that:

For SAPPHIRE NOW, 20 partners submitted 200 apps to be shown on the show floor. 100 were chosen (check them out at the SAP Partner Mobile App Catalog).

SAP's Usman Sheik, VP e-channels told me there are 200 apps in EMEA undergoing certification and 200 more on the US. All good so far. But it ain't quite that simple.

Right now, SAP is saying that all mobile apps it certifies will have to be SUP compliant. That in turn means developers will need to license SUP and pass that cost on to their customers and/or customers themselves will need to license SUP.

I have said before and I repeat here: SAP should give the platform away in most cases. It doesn't make sense to developers if they have to pay for a platform at high cost. Apple managed to build a highly successful business by making the barriers to developers trivial. SAP is still trying to wean itself on the idea that everything has to come with a Veuve Cliquot price tag.

In essence, SAP is deliberately restricting the market to the largest partners. Senior SAP executives have confirmed this saying they believe a top down approach is right for enterprise. My colleagues and I vehemently reject that argument. The big SIs/partners will not build the hundreds or thousands of apps needed to catapult the SAP Store to relevance. That has to come from a bottoms up approach. Apple and Saleforce.com have proven that model. It's a done deal.

Owen Pettiford, a long time SAP developer and SAP solutions user gets this argument as do many of my colleagues. In a stinging post on the SAP Community Network, he asks: How many mobile downloads from an Apps Store does it take to make $5bn ? He observes:

I think the problem SAP face is that to make the above a success will require CIOs (or at least 2000 of them) to think strategically about Mobility because of the level of investment required when investing in an Enterprise Mobility Platform like SUP. This will slow their time to market which will annoy the business who are screaming for “Apps – Now !”

(Disclosure: Owen asked me to sense check his post. It's in line with what I have been saying for some time.)

In comments, Jarret Pazahanick, another SAP house person says:

I know several large SAP customers who have reviewed the infrastructure and licensing costs and could not build a business case.

I also know that to be true having spoken to representatives of several very large SAP customers.

There's a much simpler argument that SAP should understand and it comes in three parts:

  1. The size of the average functional developer team inside SAP is 10 persons. That's the equivalent of a small developer shop. Geddit?
  2. Prior to SAPPHIRE, I was part of a judging panel reviewing applications built with SAP Gateway, a tool that allows developers to hook up SAP systems to many other services in a very easy way. The entries were first class, many showing how you can hide 'good old SAP' and make something that is not only functionally useful but good to look at and consume. All (except the Microsoft dudes) demonstrated the ability to deploy on multiple mobile platforms. These were built by tiny teams over three days. Yes, they're little more than POC but provide a solid indication of invention and innovation that IS possible with SAP technology. As I said at the time, all we need now is for SAP to get real about licensing that technology. It drew a spontaneous round of applause.
  3. There is no shortage of developers willing, able and enthusiastic about developing on SAP technology. They know there is a huge market out there that SAP can help them reach. All those I know are willing to share the spoils.

The good news is that SAP is making certification free through the end of this year and is talking 'sub-$1,000' going forward. I don't believe they'll charge that fee for some time to come as they realize that take up is not g0ing to be at the speed they desire. Even so, I cannot imagine any SAP developer shop baulking at $1,000 or less.

Similarly, SAP has taken the eminently sensible decision of pitching what amounts to the marketing of these solutions via the SAP Store at a reasonable 15%. The comparisons are obvious. Not as cheap as Android Market but way better than Apple.

Going forward, the company has indicated an intent to open up the SAP Store so that developers of non-SUP solutions can come on board. Similarly, it is working on ways to make the SDK available at low or no cost and further into the distance, it talks about plans to make SUP licensing at the application level much lower than the current $900 mark. It has to because as currently iterated, that won't fly very far.

To its credit, SAP has pushed through many policy refreshes that signal a welcome change in direction. Progress, just in the last few months has been astonishingly fast by SAP standards and again, for that they deserve credit. But, SAP will find they have to review their strategy around the platform in short order. Otherwise, I don't see the mobile SAP Store turning into the runaway success they'd like us all to believe.

To use the famous word of Steve Jobs: there is one more thing.

Flash on mobile is dead. As the news was breaking, I saw an elegant and very well thought out solution that can be deployed on any mobile platform. It was built upon Flash. Not knowing the breaking story I asked: "What about HTML5?" It came from an Adobe team who I'm guessing are pretty annoyed right at this moment as they see their innovation effectively flushed down the toilet. There's a lot of flash in the SAP landscape and that must now be addressed. It won't be trivial. It will create developer challenges. It will be for the best, however painful in the short term.

Editorial standards