SAP strategy: Where’s the Vorsprung durch Technik?

SAP is a company of many elements. Indeed, the German software ‘giant’ has laid down its current strategy for innovation based on a warm corporate embrace of cloud, mobile and in-memory computing technologies combined with its core ERP backbone.

This smorgasbord of compute power may appear logically grouped to some, but the company is also now shrugging off a few critiques from industry commentators who think SAP may be almost trying to hard.

What SAP does well is core “systems of record” technology as typified by Hana, its high-performance analytical appliance. What SAP also does well is buy companies and successfully integrate newly acquired technology at rational and coherent integration points into its own stack. Recent (and not so recent) consumption of Business Objects, Sybase and now Crossgate’s cloud technology into the SAP stack bear witness to this.

What SAP doesn’t do so well is explain how its technology works. As much as the company likes to use the word “innovation” at least once per paragraph, it also likes to use terminology that tends to dumb down its underlying architectural excellence. Not that a company should be criticised for championing its services division (it didn’t do IBM any harm did it?), but to explain so many of its products as suitable for deployment right out of the box and off the shelf by business people has its pitfalls.

SAP is a software company after all. Surely it should present its products as such i.e. to a software industry audience first and foremost — and (if we have to spell it out) to a business audience second. Unfortunately this is not the way the world goes around and money talks, but you have to feel some frustration when you consider its latest launch of enhancements to the social collaboration tool SAP StreamWork.

According to SAP, “StreamWork transforms the way people work. Lightweight, fast and simple analytics are planned to strengthen the collaborative decision-making process. With no training required to use these planned capabilities, analytics tools can be placed into the hands of people who have never used them before. Planned features intend to allow companies to collectively analyse data directly in SAP StreamWork, including accessing information stored in SAP HANA, for rapid retrieval and analysis of data necessary for business-critical decisions.”

A deeper examination of the StreamWork blog and other supporting web pages doesn’t provide much clearer headway into any deeper technical explanation of how this tool works. Is the company trying to make complex data analytics an out of the box consumer item then? Should that be regarded as a positive anyway? Does this trend carry forward into SAP’s other current news just now?

New mobile apps from the SAP BusinessObjects arrived in line with the company’s SAP Sapphire Europe conference held in Madrid last week. This portfolio of products is designed to help users incorporate business analytics into their day-to-day work on a variety of devices.

Available on the Apple iTunes Store, SAP BusinessObjects Mobile software provides access to business intelligence reports, metrics and real-time business data. Yes, that was “available on iTunes” that you read there.

“New visualisations helping users analyse key metrics and discover data trends while connected or disconnected. In addition, the SAP Strategy Management mobile app, enables executives to collaborate on key initiatives while away from the office. With the ability to manage daily activities through threaded discussions related to initiatives and KPIs, users can respond promptly to critical alerts, review timelines and budget status and review and analyse organisational performance,” said the company, in a press statement.

Are there perhaps more granular or deeper messages available from SAP’s Sybase division then at this time? The company used the Madrid event to announce support for the R Statistical programming language with its Sybase RAP trading edition analytics server for financial services.

The combination of R (the leading statistical programming language for data scientists and business analysts in case you didn’t know) along with Sybase RAP is said to enable faster algorithm development and extensive back-testing on historical data, making market data analytics even more powerful for quants, traders and risk managers.

Sybase has also been vocal on the subject of its expanded application management capabilities now offered by Afaria. With the latest release of Afaria, enterprises will now be able to manage mobile devices, applications and telecommunication expenses on a single platform with what the company likes to call “application on-boarding” for iOS, Android and BlackBerry devices. This enables IT organisations to create and pre-load libraries of mobile apps for simplified access by authorised employees.

So with Sybase’s news here and SAP’s announcements overall, there are some more technical proof points if you go looking for them. But should it be that hard? Or am I wrong to highlight this “issue” if it fact it is as previously suggested a generally positive thing? A lot of this is business analytics and application and data management for users in the course of their daily workload, not some deeply convoluted process involved algorithmic excellence and complex command line competencies.

“With business analytics, we are combining emerging technologies to fundamentally shift the way people engage with information,” said Steve Lucas, general manager, business analytics, SAP. “SAP is delivering an experience that is so easy, intuitive, accessible and relevant that users don’t know how they did their jobs before.

“People are able to access the information and insights they need within the context of their day-to-day work, have the flexibility to collaborate around it and can tap into the collective knowledge of their business networks. It’s a new way of working, and our customers are reporting incredible results.”

Although there is a little of the playing devil’s advocate here, I hope the point comes across. We understand that SAP has some deeply complex and (no doubt) beautifully engineered technology lining its internal portals. We are not asking for a gargantuan brain dump of over detailed proportions, just a little bit more guts here and there. After all, it must take guts to take on Oracle and “innovate rather than consolidate” as SAP has done. So let’s hear more of the Vorsprung durch Technik next time right guys?

Adrian Bridgwater a freelance journalist specialising in cross platform software application development, software engineering and project management. Adrian has worked as a freelance technology journalist for nearly two decades. His work has been published in various international publications including the Wall Street Journal, CNET.com, The Register, ComputerWeekly.com, BBC World Service magazines, eWeek Europe, Imagine's Web Designer magazine, Linux User and Developer, Silicon.com, the British Computer Society, Microscope, Heise’s “The H” online, the UAE’s Khaleej Times & Maktoob Business & ITP.net and SYS-CON’s Web Developer Journal and PowerBuilder Developer Journal. He has worked as technology editor for international travel & retail magazines and also produced annual technology industry reviews for UK-based publishers ISC. He is also a published travel and food writer for the BBC and has lived and worked abroad for 10 years in Tanzania, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Italy and the United States.