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Sybase buy lends clarity to SAP's mobile strategy, but fuzziness persists

SAP's Sybase acquisition gives the vendor a solid mobile infrastructure on which to base its mobile strategy. But the future of NetWeaver and partner relationships aren't as clear.

For customers without an SAP mobile strategy in place, the Sybase acquisition is good news, giving SAP a solid mobile infrastructure for application development and lending more clarity to its mobile roadmap.

But the path is less clear for customers with SAP Mobile Infrastructure (MI) in place, or a third-party infrastructure. The expectation is that SAP will integrate NetWeaver MI with Sybase's middleware.

SAP, which had been pushing its customers more toward partners for mobile infrastructure, said it will continue to support partnerships with vendors like Syclo and Antenna.

An SAP spokesman said today: "We remain committed to our open ecosystem strategy and enabling customer choice by working with a range of partners that drive customer value. The relationships with these partners will continue."

Many expect that to be the case in the short term. But in the longer term, it's likely that Sybase and SAP will jointly develop the field services and mobile asset management capabilities that up to this point Antenna and Sybase have specialized in individually. The expectation is that SAP will eventually push customers toward an SAP-Sybase platform.

SAP and Sybase partnered back in 2009 to make SAP Business Suite software available on an iPhone, BlackBerry and any other mobile device. It was at that point that SAP started de-emphasizing its own mobile infrastructure and SAP started pushing customers to partners for mobile infrastructure – partners like Syclo, which specializes in mobile asset management, and Antenna, which specializes in field services.

At least for now, "Don't jump. Don't feel like you have to make a move," said Jack Gold, president of Northborough, Mass.-based J. Gold Associates. "The integration of the technologies is going to take a while. What you need to do is evaluate a longer-term strategy."

Antenna, for one, isn't concerned.

"For Antenna, we have dozens of large customers with SAP back-ends. As a builder of mostly composite mobile applications, Antenna routinely gets a steady flow of SAP integration opportunities from our enterprise clients no matter what," Antenna said in a written statement. "These customers obviously saw Antenna as the superior solution over Sybase, so the impact of this acquisition to Antenna is very minimal."

It would be smart for SAP to continue to support customers who have made the choice to go with third-parties other than Sybase, according to Chris Hazelton, research director with the 451 Group. But in reality, there will likely be synergies between Sybase and SAP that will be pushed that Syclo and Antenna won't be able to offer. SAP will be putting more emphasis on building its applications on Sybase's Unwired platform, deeply integrating that into any SAP offering.

Then there's NetWeaver.

"A lot of people working [at SAP] on the NetWeaver strategy woke up to a new factor in their analysis," said Joshua Greenbaum of Enterprise Applications Consulting said. "I don't think the full implications of the Sybase acquisition are understood with respect to NetWeaver."

Despite pushing customers to partners, SAP has also continued to sell and support SAP NetWeaver Mobile technology.

Longer term, Gold expects to see a melding of the best of the Sybase Unwired Platform with NetWeaver to allow easy deployment of mobile SAP solutions. "Sybase is an open environment supporting many end-user platforms and will complement the Java-only environment of NetWeaver," he wrote in a research note on the topic. "This will also give SAP an advantage as it courts the major system integrators that embrace openness for its flexibility."

Sybase already has an "army of systems integrators" to build those applications, said Michael King, research director at Gartner.

"What they'll likely do is migrate an increasing amount of their mobile customer base away from partners," King said.

But one thing is certain, Sybase gives SAP a solid infrastructure base for mobile strategy, Greenbaum said. In addition, SAP customers looking at mobility solutions now have a mobility development kit, according to Ray Wang, partner at Altimeter Group.

Also, by merging and not simply partnering, SAP can more tightly couple mobility components from Sybase with its applications. The results will be oriented more toward what customers need.

"Customers can talk to SAP and say what they really need, and SAP now has the engineering talent it didn't have before," Gold said.

With SAP owning this development environment, the goal of more out-of-the-box mobile applications is attainable, according to Paul Hamerman, vice president, principal analyst with Forrester Research.

"They were saying mobility's important, but they couldn't articulate the strategy," Hamerman said. "The benefit now is that you can write the application once and deploy it on multiple environments. It brings coherence to mobile strategy."

Down the road, SAP is looking to Sybase for in-memory database technology and analytics, and some of the benefits of this acquisition could come to fruition in SAP's on-demand strategy

One of the things they've been able to do is take a database and be consistent across private and public clouds, which will be very valuable for organizations contemplating a leap into the cloud, Wang said.

And then, of course, there's the Oracle factor. Eventually, Sybase plans to support SAP on its database, and SAP plans to use the columnar storage technology to run its Business Suite in-memory. When it does, it will give its sales team an alternative to selling SAP with an Oracle database.

"It's primarily a forward-looking strategy, but Oracle's always in the back of SAP's mind," Hamerman said. "It's the one vendor that keeps SAP awake at night, and there is an underlying Oracle angle here. If the database runs in-memory, then they don't need to buy anything from Oracle."

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