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Sapphire '02: SAP sets sights on SMB market

Kicking off a mellower Sapphire show than in years gone by, SAP CEO Hasso Plattner unveiled new small and mid-sized business software, user interface changes, and integration help. His strategic speech met with mixed reviews.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- SAP founder and CEO Hasso Plattner may have delivered his message to thousands of IT professionals convened here, but his keynote remarks were intended as much for a guy seated in the back named Frank Ipsen as they were for the masses.

A senior process specialist at Ontario Power Generation, a company on the larger end of the mid-size market, Ipsen attended Sapphire Orlando '02 wanting to hear about collaboration, integration and scalability -- central themes to Plattner's opening address. Ispen is responsible for supply chain management development dealing with materials management in the company's nuclear division.

Ipsen attended the Sapphire opening keynote with several of his colleagues whose divisions run on SAP software; his does not. "I look at the companies SAP is modeling,'' explained Ipsen. "SAP says 'They use it; you should, too.' But I don't see any of [these other companies] dealing with the level of complexity we do.''

Still, Ipsen listened Wednesday morning with an open mind. "I think they brought me here to convert me,'' he joked, referring to his co-workers.

That's what Plattner had in mind, to be sure.

In a keynote address noted more for its humility than SAP's renowned hubris, Plattner said it was time for some SAP "housecleaning'' -- ridding SAP software of any of the cumbersome aspects or obsolete features users often complain about. He asked users for their patience and renewed the company's commitment to open architecture. The SAP of the future, Plattner assured attendees, would offer something for everyone.

Plattner delivered SAP's product news in three pieces, highlighted by a SMB launch that is part of a three-tier architecture he described as having new clarity and specifications for varying business sizes. Branded as Business One, the software targets small to mid-size companies with up to 250 users and offers reporting, accounting and sales force automation capabilities.

Next came SAP's integration offering, "xApps,'' a product designed to fill the gaps in business processes. Applied on existing software, xApps is being billed as a way to connect multiple applications from different suppliers, including SAP competitors such as Oracle, PeopleSoft and Microsoft.

Finally, Plattner announced a standard user interface, WebDynpro, which supports J2EE, Microsoft's .NET and SAP's ABAP,. as a solution to familiar complaints from customers who have historically been dissatisfied with SAP's interface efforts.

So, how did Plattner do? Well, Ipsen chuckled when Plattner expressed disgust at Ireland's World Cup win over Germany, and, like many in the audience, he tried to figure out what was happening in the bizarre short film, apparently influenced by Hollywood director David Lynch, that served as Plattner's introduction. In the end, though, Ipsen hadn't been recruited to SAP. Still, he said, SAP's new integration products "are a good direction relative to what we think would help.''

More impressed was Heidi Juarez, a business analyst manager at Seminis Vegetable Seeds in southern California. "It was interesting to see the new Business One,'' said Juarez. "That's the first we had heard about it. We are rolling out to some subsidiaries, so that is something we want to learn more about.''

SAP's softer side

Encouraging the type of IT unity SAP was once accused of blocking, Plattner issued a public plea to Microsoft regarding the company's policy on Windows compatibility. Drawing from a famous sound bite uttered by former-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Plattner said: "Mr. Gates, tear down that wall.''

He also apologized to customers like Juarez, who is among those dissatisfied with some of the SAP screen designs. Ironically, Juarez said she believes the problem, having to do with the number of screens users have to bypass to get to where they need to be, is rooted in the principles SAP is pushing here.

"They're trying to appeal to so many individual users, so many different types of users,'' said Juarez. "They're trying to please everyone.''

If Plattner sounded less cocky than he has in previous years, then Sapphire also has a less giddy mood, according to many repeat visitors. (More than one conversation at the buffet was dedicated to the obvious scaling down of the door prizes. This year's welcome gift of high-tech carabiners, those mountaineering clips that are also used as key chains by some, were a decidedly less expensive route than the handheld devices SAP handed out last year.)

Perhaps Plattner set the tone for the convention when he said, early on, "Everyone knows these are tough times.''


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