SAP's 'duh' strategy for mobile

Grand pronouncements are vague and disappointing

There SAP goes again: Making vague promises in the guise of major strategy. Today, SAP once again laid out a strategic vision for the stagnant ERP firm, this time pronouncing on how its recent acquisition of Sybase will lead to -- wait for it! -- mobile-enabling SAP's application suite.

That is why SAP paid $5.6 billion for Sybase in the first place, of course. So tell me something I don't already know.

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SAP is famous for big promises, but also for not delivering on them. It's been four years, for example, since SAP promised to bring ERP to small businesses, but we're still waiting. (Or maybe not -- the truth may be that ERP isn't needed by small businesses, at least not SAP's budget-sucking variety.) And it's SOA/Web services platform never really materialized, but instead became just another middleware platform (Netweaver).

The current mobile promise is equally grandiose as the original small business and SOA promises, and so could easily peter out as they did:

The companies will bring together technologies to deliver a mobile platform that is based on open standards, deployable on premise or on demand, integrates with all applications, runs on all major mobile operating systems and manages and supports all major device types. With this platform SAP, Sybase, and partners will develop and deliver new mobile-enabled business applications that drives additional value to SAP customers.

At its core, that sounds like a simple task to me: Simply cloud-enable your apps and present them in a mobile-friendly skin, using well-known technologies such as AJAX and dynamic HTML. After all, turning a smartphone or slate into a pane of glass for Web- and cloud-delivered apps is just a variation on the old Web services trick. It's table stakes today.

SAP execs also trotted out an old, old promise of mobile: targeted coupons based on customer behavior. Given SAP's product lines in ERP, business intelligence, and now mobile management, the idea of doing custom delivery based on analytics to individual customers via their smartphones is a sensible idea. It's just that everyone has the same idea and that the idea, dubbed m-commerce, has been proposed for more than a decade. Shopkick, for example, got some buzz earlier this year for the latest incarnation of this concept, which I suspect will have the same "don't spy on me" reaction as Facebook's recently announced location sharing technology and other similar services have always had. No matter the validity of such objections, m-commerce is an obvious idea that's been obvious to lots of people for a long time.

If SAP has a mobile strategy that goes beyond the obvious, it's not telling. Here's what I would have wanted to see real insight on:

  • How to use mobile data -- geolocation, camera, microphone, presence sensor, and the other sensors embedded in modern devices -- to extend the capability of ERP users, from shop managers using their ERP system's manufacturing components to salespeople handling the customer management. After all, mobile devices bring new capabilities to the mix, not just make regular computing portable. It's true that m-commerce fits in this category, but is that all there is?
  • How to rethink ERP processes to work well natively in the mobile context, so users who don't spend all day at desks can do their jobs better, faster, more easily, and with better results. SAP execs and their PR videos showed off the usual stuff -- looking at maps, messaging on the go, and using entertainment services -- but again, is that it?

Specific ideas that demonstrate an understanding of innovative mobile enterprise and business potential would really be worth crowing about.

The good news is that SAP did acquire Sybase, which has some decent mobile management technology that maybe can be translated to mobile delivery technology and paired intelligently with other SAP technologies. At least it means there are some Androids and iPhones in use at SAP that could over time clue the company in to the fact that real mobile innovation goes beyond a pane-of-glass approach, no matter how pretty the glass.

And maybe SAP does have some real insights on innovative uses of mobie in enterprise but doesn't want to tip off competitors. If so, stop the hand-waving and get back to us when it's real.

This article, "SAP's 'duh' strategy for mobile," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

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