I developed a spark of admiration and foresaw vast opportunity when SAP embraced SOA at the Boston Sapphire event two years ago. But the departure of Shai Agassi, president of SAP’s product and technology group and architect of SAP’s NetWeaver software, calls into question whether SAP will now hunker down into defensive posture for the next five years, rather than transition -- no, doubt, with pain -- through sufficient adaptation.
The company's installed base is envious, for sure. It's business applications are deeply embedded into those sites. It's margins remain strong. Yet the assaults come on all sides, and not just by such formidable competitors as Oracle -- but by the very nature of computing and acquisition of business services themselves.
The next five years will be a period of great change in the use, production and extension of software: new business models, new architectural approaches, new means by which to acquire services rather than software. SAP has been slow to adopt open source, if at all meaningfully. Acquisitions have not been strategic. It is wed deeply to licensed on-premises software as its revenue model. It has treated SaaS as a fad more than a shift. It is very expensive.
Agassi was the one a SAP you would see with the gleam in his eye, an indication that all was well nonetheless, that made you believe that SAP understood and would therefore -- when the time was right -- get it right.
If Agassi's duties are now going to be absorbed by a group of other executives, and probably not in the U.S., then this timing to major transition will likely slip into a defensive crouch. SAP will need to demonstrate otherwise swiftly if this is not the case. NetWeaver has not gained sufficient traction, while Oracle Fusion is sprinting out of the blocks. IBM is the mastermind of open source as a strategy and market maker (or breaker). Microsoft has a a real "NetWeaver" in .NET/Windows System through which to deliver the packaged applications (not the other way around, as in SAP's case).
SAP's many strengths remain, and it will be a strong company for many years. But I have seen this crouch effect before. DEC, Bull, Olivetti and Novell come to mind. And I've seen other companies successfully cross the Rubicon into real transformation. IBM and EMC come to mind.
Time is not, as SAP may now think, on its side.
Incidentally, Agassi may be pursuing "alternative energy and climate change," but I'd wager only until his non-compete is up, perhaps as a "entrepreneur in residence" at a Silicon Valley VC firm. When the date comes when he is free to wander, I think he'll be back in the software business. There's just too much opportunity for the non-incumbent these days.