SAP aims to be the Apple of enterprise mobility

The company is seeing large customer demand for mobile apps

A home improvement retail chain can use an app running on an iPad to help design a customer's home, check inventory for the products, give a cost estimate to the customer, and take orders.

Yet another app called iPeople allows human resources executives to drill down into a visual of employees' business cards to access information based on a variety of parameters.

SAP, the company behind these apps, has been largely identified with complex backend business software for enterprise resource planning, business intelligence, customer relationship management, and its new in-memory database HANA.

Its goal now in the mobile arena is to create a brand for itself in enterprise mobility like Apple did in consumer mobility, said Sanjay Poonen, president of technology solutions and head of the mobile division at SAP, in an interview on Wednesday. That goal requires investments in mobile security, the platform for applications, and in the mobile applications themselves, he said.

The company acquired some of the technologies for this strategy through its acquisition of Sybase in 2010.

Much in the same way that there was a consumer revolution in mobility in the last three to four years with games like Angry Birds and social software, businesses are now demanding the ability to access information and run their businesses from mobile devices, Poonen said.

SAP plans to build packaged apps that are "repeatable" and it can sell to a large number of customers, as well as custom apps built by SAP's consulting practice.

The company has also put its mobile platform in the cloud, and will soon announce that it is opening the platform to developers for free for developing and testing applications on up to five devices. The company decided to allow developers up to five devices because they are likely to develop the app for a variety of operating systems including iOS and Android. "The moment they deploy them in production they pay us for a license to use the platform," Poonen said.

"We would like to see tens of thousands of apps that are built around our platform," he added.

In some cases, SAP will also license and sell an app. The iPeople app for example was developed by a company from which SAP has licensed the product because it is expected to be relevant to a large variety of customers, Poonen said.

The play can be large for SAP. The company said on Thursday that its mobile revenue was ¬48 million (US$62 million) in the third quarter, and was on track to meet its full-year forecast of ¬220 million. The revenue is expected to come from both platforms and apps.

Apps also help sell backend software, as customers now want their ERP or CRM software provider to support apps for mobile devices to manage and access data, Poonen said.

But as employees want to run apps on devices they bring to work -- a trend better known by the acronym BYOD (bring-your-own-device) -- SAP has to work around a key issue: security.

The company plans to ship "containerization" software in three to six months that separates business data from personal information on a user's smartphone or tablet to improve security.

Mobile security is getting more complex, and goes beyond just MDM (mobile device management), Poonen said. It could for example tie into a customer's policies for access control. The mobile security system could be required for example to turn off the camera on a mobile phone as soon as an employee swipes his badge to enter a building.

Companies also want to ensure that corporate documents are not uploaded to external cloud storage systems like Dropbox for ease of use. SAP is instead working on a similar content management system that will sit within the firewall but will allow sharing of content across devices. The product is expected to ship in the first quarter of next year.

Some of these products may be shipped as extensions to SAP's Afaria mobile device management tool.

SAP is also working with chip makers to take advantage of the security built into processors, Poonen said.

In a blog post earlier this month, Poonen wrote that SAP would like to play in MDM, mobile apps management, secure content management, and in the "Internet of Things" which consisted of a variety of devices communicating with each other such as vending machines alerting the supply chain for replenishment. SAP is already working with consumer packaged goods companies on the smart vending machine, Poonen said this week.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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