SAP's year in review, the developer viewpoint

It's been a busy year for SAP. What do I make of it?
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor on

Some folk think I spend far too much time talking about SAP to the detrement of other vendors equally worthy of attention. Maybe so but then I'd rather know a lot about a little than a little about a lot. What better target for attention than the largest business software company in the world that has the capacity to both delight and frustrate, sometimes in equal measure? This year has been especially interesting and marks what I believe is the first year in a transformation that runs through to at least 2015. What do I mean?

I'm going to come at this from a single dimension; that of the developer and new apps that either hold potential or which are proving to be of genuine value to customers. 

The 'old' SAP was insular, often hallmarked by a desire to excel at software engineering but only provided that engineering emanated from its own labs. The expression 'not invented here' fits very well with that mindset and was a constant source of frustration for partners. This year, SAP recognised that it cannot be the innovator of innovators for all its customers. The world is moving far too quickly for any single vendor to realistically claim that title. Instead, it is comfortable with helping get technology into the marketplace as quickly as possible and then seeing what happens. 

SAP also understood that HANA, the topic it relentlessly pursued at every AR/PR opportunity, has to be much more than 'speeds and feeds.' As a database replacement it may have some mileage but its greatest potential is as an engine that encourages the re-imagining of applications and the invention of entirely new classes of app. The company gets that and it was with that in mind that I, along with my video partner Jon Reed, have spent the last couple of months finding customers and partners who are doing interesting things, mostly on HANA but also in mobile.

The net result is some 50 plus videos, most of which are now either in production or available on the web. Just to be clear, SAP commissioned us to produce roughly 65 per cent of the video output. We retained complete freedom around what we chose to shoot, how we chose to shoot and the questions we chose to ask. We believe the results give solid insights into what the market makes of SAP and what is happening as a result. 

What did we find? What follows may surprise.

  • Some of the really cracking innovation is coming from some of the smallest developer shops. The smallest group we found was just four people but then you could count this loner as an extreme outlier. 
  • While SAP is usually associated with business to business, I noticed that one of its start up developer partners have been recognised as developing cool technology among those who are more closely associated with consumer activities.
  • It doesn't fight shy of taking its technology into schools and seeing what can be achieved by those who will follow in the years to come. It's a great idea and well worthy of praise.
  • Contrary to popular belief, SAP can get its technology into developer shops that many would categorise as 'sexy.' 
  • SAP has not been afraid to invest significantly in partners who show potential, regardless of whether they are well known or just starting out. They have gone from nothing to 150 invested startups in less than six months. How many VCs can say the same?
  • On the customer front, those who have gone beyond HANA POC are deriving significant benefit. This example which talks of €80 million in improved cash management is one that makes the eyes pop. And that's just one benefit mentioned in the conversation. 
  • A surprising number of customers have been into mobile for years but even they are finding genuine value from SAP's mobile technology offerings.
  • In an age where we're supposed to be 'always on' SAP technology is helping customers which cannot always be 'on' but which still require a mobile solution. Which would be 99% of the business population in my experience. 
  • Great eye catching design isn't limited to the agencies and creatives to which many vendors are turning in their attempts to be more user friendly. This practical yet pleasing example shows something of what I mean. 

SAP has spent a lot of money on high touch initiatives that have got it this far. Those will need to scale next year and that is causing some head scratching among its executives as they try figure how best to take this nascent ecosystem of enthusiasts and turn them into a power house of innovation around which everyone can profit. Some have ideas about how this might happen

One surprise - at least to me - has been the lack of solutions coming from the SAP Mentor community. Yes there are some and they're often interesting. But I expected to see a much higher representation from this set of SAP enthusiasts than is the case. I wonder why but have no concrete answers?

Cynics will argue this vignette is nothing compared to say the ecosystem of developers working with the likes of Salesforce.com. Well, if numbers are what matters then sure. Instead, I'd push back and argue that SAP can (and is) taking the best of these developer examples into accounts that Salesforce.com can only dream about. I'd equally argue that some of the examples we have seen are truly groundbreaking, offering value that falls squarely into the 'transformational' camp. Others keep us safe in ways that would be impossible without the kind of technology SAP is offering. 

SAP has shown that even with a limited set of examples, it sees 'the art of the possible.' The big question now is how it uses its considerable resources to help a 'thousand flowers blossom.' It strikes me that the start it has made bears the hallmarks of a company that is genuinely changing to reflect a new reality in the 21st century. It is one that all but the most die hard cynics will welcome given the difficulties that all super tankers face when steering a fresh course. 

So with those glowing words in mind I look forward to seeing what happens in the New Year. What else? There's plenty of things to critique but on this occasion I'd like to close out my SAP commentary for 2012 on something of a positive note and leave the carping to others. 



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