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For companies going mobile, is SAP Sybase necessary?

A lot of companies that run SAP are thinking of going mobile. But does that mean going with the Sybase Unwired Platform?

Mike O’Dell’s dilemma over whether to deploy the SAP Sybase Unwired Platform (SUP) began with a project that took place nearly a decade ago.

Back in 2003, Pacific Coast Cos. Inc., a building materials company based in Rancho Cordova, Calif., deployed a simple Windows CE mobile app that building crews in the field could use to access and update project information kept in the company’s SAP ERP systems. The app could also be used to add photographs of the ongoing project, according to O’Dell, the company’s chief information officer.

While Pacific Coast is still using the same application today, it has plans to significantly increase the number of mobile apps in its arsenal by adding custom sales applications specific to the building materials field.

That’s where SAP Sybase comes in, according to O'Dell. Pacific Coast plans to pilot one such application in the coming weeks as part of an effort to assess how feasible -- or necessary -- it will be to deploy SUP throughout the enterprise.

One of the key reasons the company is looking at SUP centers on the product's ability to write code simultaneously for different devices and platforms, which will come in handy across the company’s subsidiaries. 

“One of the advantages is the portability. We have one subsidiary that really likes iPhones. We have another that really likes Androids,” O’Dell said. “If I can have one code base but really take advantage of minimizing my development to support all of the devices, I can see where that would be very handy.”

‘Unbelievably confusing’ for SAP mobile customers
It’s easy to find SAP customers that are thinking of mobilizing some portion of their SAP applications these days. But how they do that -- and whether the Sybase Unwired Platform plays into it -- is another question.

“It is unbelievably confusing right now in terms of what is the best approach for developing, and most importantly deploying, managing and securing applications,” said Philippe Winthrop, managing director at the Boston-based Enterprise Mobility Foundation, a think tank that focuses on mobile computing.

SAP recently announced that it would be rolling out the 2.1 version of SUP by the end of the year. The revised platform will include a much-anticipated software development kit designed to give developers tools to create mobile applications across a range of platforms, including iPhone’s iOS, BlackBerry, Android and Windows Mobile, the company said. The new platform will also support SAP NetWeaver Gateway, an open standards-based framework that developers can use to more easily access SAP applications from mobile devices.  

That can be a lot of firepower and cost -- perhaps too much for companies that do not require such a wide range of functionality.

Using a mobile middleware application like SUP makes the most sense if a company is going for a larger mobile deployment, such as 30 to 40 different apps, to a global population of 10, 000 to 20,000 people, according to Winthrop. 

“If that’s the case, then yeah, it makes a lot of sense to at least evaluate the SUP platform,” he said.

But adopting SUP can make sense even if companies aren’t going to deploy as many applications as Winthrop suggested, according to Chris Marsh, an analyst in the Yankee Group’s European headquarters in London, especially if a large number of employees are involved.  

“I think in all cases, [having SUP is] going to be preferable to not having it, especially in the enterprise where you’ve got quite sensitive data flying around. For specific business processes where that really is the case, having the application management and device management features provided by Afaria will be very important,” according to Marsh. “And to be perfectly honest, it’s the only way to deploy applications sensibly to a large workforce.”

Think short term for SAP mobile
The decision to go with the SUP -- or a similar mobile enterprise application platform (MEAP) -- should also depend on how many mobile applications a company wants to deploy in the near future. 

“Instead of thinking about a super long-term strategy, focus on the low-hanging fruit,” Winthrop said. “What is going to be the easiest ‘win’ in terms of biggest bang for your buck, in the short run? Normally, I suggest taking a longer-term strategy. But it’s evolving so quickly. The future absolutely is a moving target.”

One advantage of using the SUP is that it’s going to be the primary platform for all SAP mobile applications. It also includes a native integration capability with SAP’s back end. But there are other MEAPs to consider, including the one offered by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sky Technologies, an SAP partner. Other MEAPs can be cheaper but are not built on the SUP.

Companies can also choose from the growing list of SAP prepackaged mobile apps, according to Winthrop. “It’s not just about developing your own custom apps,” he said.

Premade apps from SAP and its partners
SAP has continued to bolster its number of mobile applications with the addition of about 30 new apps at the recent SapphireNow conference in Madrid, including those in retail, CRM, transportation management and field service.

While some of those applications are more detailed, others are relatively basic and address fairly straightforward processes, according to Marsh. 

The benefit of those applications is that they’re easy and inexpensive to deploy, he said. The downside is that they are so generic they probably won’t give companies any strategic advantage. 

Many of those apps are mostly efforts by SAP to demonstrate their commitment to SUP and encourage partners and others within the ecosystem to build additional apps, which they’re doing, Marsh added.  About 200 of those partner-built apps were announced by SAP partners, Marsh said, and are geared toward more specific processes.  

“There’s a whole host of apps built on SUP by their big integrator partners, which were quite frankly better than the ones that SAP had produced.”   

But in the end, most companies will use a combination of straightforward, ready-to-go SAP mobile applications for generic processes along with a number of custom apps that companies create themselves or purchase from an SAP partner.

“It’s not one or the other,” Marsh said. 

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