SAP enhances mobile applications, playing catch-up with mobile vendors

SAP this week announced enhancements to its mobile applications, but smaller, mobile-focused vendors still have advantages in this growing market, analysts say.

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Mobile applications are back in vogue in 2007. SAP addressed this demand yesterday, announcing several enhancements to its mobile applications portfolio, but it still trails mobile-focused vendors in some areas, according to analysts.

"Mobile is becoming really big again," said R. Wang, a principal analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, citing improved architectures and better reliability of devices like BlackBerrys and rugged laptops as reasons for the surge.

Mobile application development has picked up tremendously in 2007, following a significant ramp-up in the latter half of 2006, according to Tony Rizzo, director of mobile technology research for New York's 451 Group.

"There has been a very discernible uptake within the enterprise, from asking why to asking how and how quickly," Rizzo said. "Enterprise mobility is becoming perceived now as a strategic advantage relative to companies that don't have such capability."

Addressing this trend, SAP will expand on several current mobile applications and offer new ones in the near future. The company has increased its mobile customer base to more than 850 over the last year, according to Sami Muneer, senior director of solution marketing at SAP.

This week, SAP made available enhancements to xApps for mobile sales and asset management.

SAP has added new functionality to allow sales staff to conduct trade promotion evaluations and access customer feedback remotely to the xApp Mobile Sales application, which provides remote access to customer and product information. The xApp will also get new vertical-specific features for the consumer packaged goods industry.

The SAP Mobile Asset Management (SAP xMAM) xApp, which provides remote access to work orders and equipment information, will now have geographic information system (GIS) and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology.

The new SAP Mobile In-Store Inventory Management composite application will be available for purchase in the third quarter of 2007. It extends SAP for Retail, allowing retail sales clerks to check inventory data via mobile devices while on the store floor.

SAP is also planning a handheld version of SAP xApp Mobile Service. When released in 2008, it will target field service engineers and enable them to complete such tasks as accessing customer service history information from their mobile devices.

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At the base of SAP's mobile products is SAP NetWeaver Mobile, a component of NetWeaver, like Exchange Infrastructure (XI) or Portal. The company announced that a new version of SAP NetWeaver Mobile will be available on a limited basis in November of this year and will take advantage of service-oriented architecture (SOA).

The mobile application market

Even with the announced products, SAP and its competitors -- Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle, for example -- lag behind some pure-play mobile vendors when it comes to functionality, according to Rizzo.

"[SAP and Oracle have] been slow to grasp the real significance of mobility and slow to develop the tools necessary to deliver," Rizzo said. "[This is] a key reason why pure-play vendors such as Antenna Software, MobileAware and Dexterra are now beginning to land some major deployments."

SAP and Oracle have often taken an "all things to all people" approach to mobile applications, which can lead to applications that take a longer time to install and lack the flexibility of products from the smaller mobile players, Rizzo explained.

"[SAP and Oracle] have a long way to go in order to become competitive with far more nimble pure plays," he said.

SAP agreed that niche mobile players do have certain advantages in the market.

"Niche players have the necessary, very specific expertise in their vertical niches, much more than any major vendor can -- that's their specialty," Muneer said. "SAP can't claim to know as much as many of these niche vendors do, because we can't be everything to every niche."

Muneer noted, however, that many niche vendors thrive on divisional-based approaches to purchasing mobile applications -- where separate divisions of a company purchase specific mobile applications rather than the whole enterprise being involved. But he has seen the platform-based, enterprise-wide purchase approach gain popularity recently, in part to control costs.

"CIOs are all of a sudden saying, 'I need to have a platform in place in order to cater to individual needs, but to not let costs get out of proportion,' " Muneer said. "That becomes a huge differentiator for SAP."

Whatever buying strategies customers use, the reasons for purchase are becoming more strategic, Rizzo said. In the past, a majority of mobile deployments had an emphasis on bottom line savings, such as cost reduction and productivity improvements.

"As we move forward in 2007, we are seeing a change to thinking of mobility as a means to developing new, strategic applications that can contribute to top line revenue," he said. "That is the major change that has spurred growth."

Rizzo sees the mobile market eventually going the way many other emerging technology markets have gone -- consolidation.

"SAP and Oracle will eventually have to come around to getting it right," he said. "More than likely that means they will look to acquire the technology, so M&A activity would not be out of the question."

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