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SAP relying more on partners to deliver SAP mobile infrastructure

In a shift from its go-it-alone strategy, SAP is partnering to deliver SAP mobile infrastructure, a move welcomed by analysts and customers.

Terasen Gas relies on SAP as its system of record, but when choosing the middleware on which it would launch an aggressive field services project, it found SAP's mobile infrastructure wasn't cutting it.

Around 2004, Terasen, the gas company for 931,000 customers in British Columbia, tried to build a mobile infrastructure for field services using SAP Mobile Asset Management. Terasen wanted its workers to be able to access all of the applications and data they needed to do their work on a mobile device.

But SAP wasn't able to deliver on that vision, at least not by itself.

"[SAP] worked very hard at trying to make us happy," said David Legge, CIO at the company. "But at the end of the day, they were at least a generation away from being in a position to deliver their mobile apps in a manner we envisioned it."

For more on SAP mobile infrastructure
Read about SAP's partnership with Sybase to mobilize Business Suite on the iPhone, BlackBerry

Read about Baylor College of Medicine's NetWeaver mobile deployment

Read a case study about the SAP-Syclo project at Terasen Gas

Not long ago, SAP directed customers who wanted to mobilize SAP applications solely toward its own infrastructure. SAP will continue to sell and develop NetWeaver Mobile, which is "the central piece of its mobile strategy," according to Prashant Chatterjee, director of mobility and analytics for SAP. It will also continue to sell core mobile applications for industries such as defense. Some SAP customers are using NetWeaver Mobile 7.1, the most recent platform release, for projects.

But SAP's strategy for developing mobile applications has shifted. SAP has also been partnering with vendors like Syclo, which specializes in mobilizing applications for field services and asset management. Working with partners like Syclo, SAP will integrate NetWeaver Mobile with the partner's middleware, creating a 50-50 mix of middleware from SAP and its partner. SAP will provide the back end, Chatterjee said, and the partner will do the coding on the actual device itself.

It's a strategy that marks a shift away from organic development and toward partnering with mobile vendors that can do it better. For some, it's a welcome shift.

"I'm encouraged that they're partnering with people who are really good at doing the stuff you have to do to do interface management," George Muller said. Muller is the IT business manager at Conectiv Energy. Conectiv, which is currently working on a project to mobilize its SAP applications on Syclo, provides electricity and telecommunications for southern New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and natural gas to northern Delaware.

SAP's partnership with Syclo is its third partnership with a mobile vendor in two years. Last year, SAP announced it had partnered with BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM) to mobilize CRM on the popular smartphone. In March, it said it would mobilize the SAP Business Suite with Sybase, a project dubbed "Office on the Go."

"[SAP] thinks they have to do everything themselves, and they're starting to realize now that they can't," said Jack Gold, president of Northborough, Mass.-based J. Gold Associates, a technology analyst firm. "I think they're now starting to realize they're getting left behind."

It's something SAP itself acknowledges. Chatterjee said proliferation of devices, time to market and the speed at which the market is moving have all influenced SAP's decision to make partnerships with best-of-breed mobile vendors the main leg of its mobile strategy.

"Developing on the iPhone is not a core competency of SAP," he said.

Why can't SAP mobile stand alone in smartphones?

One of the biggest performance problems Terasen Gas had with SAP Mobile Asset Management was synchronization. In the customer service world, they're constantly synchronizing, Legge said, and it was very expensive to move packets of information back and forth across the network. Better synchronization capabilities were the major reason they chose Syclo, he said.

Read a case study about the SAP-Syclo project at Terasen Gas

Conectiv wants to deploy a mobile asset management platform that will not only allow workers to execute works orders on their handhelds but integrate applications such as environmental health and safety for compliance initiatives, Muller said.

"I've been frustrated by SAP's mobile platform, and, in fairness, not that we installed and tried to use it," he said. "But we started talking about doing rounds years ago, and when I talked to the SAP lab guys, they said, 'You can build that if you take pieces of what we have.' I don't want to build it."

The crux of the problem is SAP NetWeaver, its middleware. NetWeaver is too big, too heavy, and too hard to deploy for smartphones, Gold said.

"If they're going to do applications for a mobile platform, they need to be targeted for a mobile platform," he said.

NetWeaver Mobile is the mobile gateway -- it decouples the back end from the mobile device, authenticates, provides security and serves as the standard interface for partners that are developing mobile applications. But developing applications for smartphones is not a core competency of SAP, Chatterjee said.

"I don't think NetWeaver is missing anything, but NetWeaver is not a platform for the iPhone," he said. "It is a platform to present application developers on various PDAs a gateway into the SAP world."

How does SAP's partnership approach stack up?

Yet deals like the one SAP struck with Syclo will help it in the mobile market. Partnering allows SAP to provide customers with an easier way of getting SAP applications onto mobile devices. It also provides a way of linking those applications with other mobile applications, such as Outlook, Gold said.

It's a different approach from that of SAP's competitor Oracle, but not necessarily an inferior one.

"I think they both have issues from a mobile perspective," Gold said. "Oracle isn't much farther ahead."

Oracle may be a little further along in terms of its application development, according to Chris Hazelton, research director for mobile and wireless at the 451 Group. Oracle's Sun acquisition gives it control over Java, the development language on which its mobile applications are built, he said.

Still, it's very hard for a company to develop and address the whole mobile market, Hazelton said.

"Really, the key is, if you're a smaller mobile player, you want to hook into as many back-end systems as possible," he said. "SAP has several partners, and they're not going to be limited to one technology."

In that light, it doesn't really make sense for SAP to buy one of these mobile vendors, Hazleton said.

Gold, in turn, thinks it makes sense to partner with everybody. But he questions whether that's enough.

"It actually would be more interesting to see if they'd go out and acquire somebody," he said.

Also, the partnership approach comes with potential pitfalls for customers, Gold said. Customers can't go to one vendor if there's a problem with the software, which could pose support problems.

"Customers like to have one throat to choke," he said.

SAP says support won't be an issue for customers -- all mobile applications developed with vendors will be supported and run as if they were organic SAP applications.

"They're no less than SAP developed solutions," Chatterjee said.

How's Syclo working for SAP customers?

The Syclo-SAP partnership is working quite well for Terasen Gas, Legge said. It has completely mobilized the entire distribution workforce on a single platform, he said. It took a little more than two years from the planning stages to implement the platform.

Now, workers can get almost everything they need to do a job -- from the work order, to the download history of everything that happened to a piece of equipment, to pending maintenance or pending activities -- on one handheld device. Most of the workers use Panasonic Toughbooks.

"What it brought to us was true visibility about what was going on in the field," Legge said. "It really opened up our eyes in terms of the tweaks we need to make in our business model -- now that we see everything going on."

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