SAP co-CEOs talk technology, building customer trust

Snabe and McDermott's Sapphire keynote was short on news but big on vision

SAP's co-CEOs pushed two central messages during a keynote address Tuesday at the Sapphire conference running simultaneously in Frankfurt and Orlando: They are working hard to earn customers' trust and to build out a technology strategy encompassing on-premises, on-demand and mobile applications.

The last area will be enabled by SAP's pending acquisition of Sybase, which was announced last week. Together, the vendors will offer a full suite of ERP (enterprise resource planning) software and BI (business intelligence) tools on "any device, at any place, at any time," said co-CEO Bill McDermott.

The US$5.8 billion deal for Sybase served to cement McDermott and co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe's arrival at the top of SAP. They were appointed in February, succeeding Léo Apotheker, who had a fairly short and rocky tenure as CEO, marked by slowing sales and user discontent over a support price hike, both of which were exacerbated by the global recession.

As they have been doing in the past few months, Snabe and McDermott sought to focus on the future and the prospect of a return to growth for customers.

"We've worked very hard for the last 100 days to make sure our message is clear," McDermott said. "Your success is the single unit of measure for our company. We realize that trust and success must come one customer at a time."

The industry is at an "important inflection point" thanks to the growing pervasiveness of mobile technology and connectivity to the Internet, Snabe said. "Every single one of your customers has a very strong voice. They can reach millions of other people."

In a business context, "mobility is the new desktop," McDermott said.

Companies like Google and its search technology allowed users to find the proverbial needle in the haystack, Snabe said. But merely finding information isn't enough, he suggested. "To make decisions, we need to find the needle and bring that to the right person at the right moment in time on the right device, so that person can be empowered and make the right decision."

Those in attendance looking for details on product road maps involving Sybase technology left disappointed, however, as the executives offered no specifics, but this was perhaps to be expected since the deal has not closed. There was also a dearth of big-bang news announcements regarding SAP's own products.

But on balance, the keynote had some resonance, according to Forrester Research analyst Paul Hamerman, who was in attendance. "They're talking about some very good, forward-looking initiatives," he said.

However, customers "need to see more concrete strategies for them to be able to reduce their total cost of ownership, which still remains a very big pain point for SAP customers today," Hamerman said.

It also remains to be seen how quickly SAP executes on its product visions, Hamerman added.

"The challenge for SAP is to quickly develop mobile applications based on the [Sybase platform]," he said. "Time to market hasn't really been a real strength for them."

Also Tuesday, SAP announced what amounts to an expansion of its enhancement pack strategy for Business Suite, which allows customers to add new features without the pain of a traditional upgrade.

Dubbed "Innovations 2010," the strategy will provide so-called "switch-on" enhancements for Business Suite, Business Objects and NetWeaver, as well as industry-specific processes, social collaboration and other areas.

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