Attendees applaud their Palms

At the height of dot-com mania, in September 1999, the exhibit hall floor at SAP AG’s annual Sapphire trade show was packed from wall to wall. SAP’s growth in new installations was peaking, and companies flush with venture capital were tossing marketing dollars around liberally to attract those customers.

“Every mom-and-pop dot-com was giving away a BMW at their booth,” recalled one veteran of five consecutive Sapphires.

Two years later, in June 2001, the exhibit hall had some sparse spots, and vendors relied on pens, yo-yos, golf balls and chocolates instead of luxury cars to lure passers-by.

SAP America Director of Public Relations Bill Wohl estimated attendance at this year’s U.S. installment of Sapphire at 9,000, slightly less than the 10,000 attendees whom SAP co-CEO and co-chairman Hasso Plattner welcomed on Wednesday in his opening keynote. That attendance figure tops last year’s turnout by 15 per cent, according to Wohl, but represents a drop from 1999 and 1998.

Wohl said SAP isn’t concerned that it couldn’t maintain its attendance momentum from the bubble era – the company is happy enough to be drawing a crowd of thousands at a time when many other developers are canceling their user conferences, he said.

SAP touted this year’s Sapphire as 2001’s “largest wireless-enabled, company-sponsored e-business conference.” Mobility was a theme of SAP’s marketing message at the conference: Several keynotes and demos highlighted the wireless abilities of SAP’s software, and all attendees received a Palm VIIx handheld loaded with the conference schedule, several SAP demos, and wireless Internet access.

Palm Inc. Global Alliances Manager Barbara Smith said Palm executives have been trying for years to work out a deal with SAP to distribute Palms at Sapphire. “This year, the stars aligned,” she said.

Smith said Palm’s goal is to show off the value of its PDAs (personal digital assistants) as enterprise tools, and gain a foothold in the corporate market. Toward that end, SAP is a valuable partner, she said: “Nothing is more mainstream in business than SAP.”

Several attendees said they found the Palm VIIxs to be a useful addition to the conference. Kevin Gerlach, director of IT service delivery at paper manufacturer P.H. Glatfelter Co., said he appreciated the demo loaded on the device.

Accounting Systems Administrator Lisa Melo, a Suburban Propane Partners L.P. employee, said she had been too busy to check out the demos but would probably do so after the conference. She appreciated having the Sapphire schedule available on the device and updated wirelessly. The Palm VIIx is her first PDA, and she said she’ll keep using it after the conference, and will probably pay to continue the wireless service.

But one exhibitor on the trade show floor expressed doubts about the usefulness of the Palm PDAs distributed at Sapphire. Peter Orr, director of product marketing for Epic Data International Inc. division Epic Technologies and a regular Sapphire attendee, said he thinks the devices are currently more gimmicky than useful as SAP-powered business tools.

“Frankly, at this stage, it’s still mostly hype,” Orr said. “(Mobility) was a prominent theme in SAP’s marketing message last year, but it was more proof-of-concept. I don’t think they’re there yet with the architecture. It’s one thing to (use the Palm VIIxs) to check schedules; it’s another to do transactions.”

Epic Technologies focuses on mobile application technology. Orr said he found out about two weeks before Sapphire, by consulting with several Gartner Inc. analysts, that wireless technologies would be an SAP focus during the event.

Shipco Wireless Inc. Vice President Mustafa Tyebbhoy didn’t know until he arrived that SAP would be emphasizing mobile data access. Because his company, which has exhibited at several previous Sapphires but skipped last year’s event, was at the show to draw attention to its new Catamaran suite of development tools for wireless application delivery, the wireless focus was a happy surprise, he said. In his view, SAP’s wireless embrace is more than a mere marking tactic. He said he senses more interest in mobile technologies from Sapphire attendees than in previous years.

“Traffic light, quality good,” was the verdict from Symbol Inc. Senior Manager of Business Development Rick Baron. Symbol, which develops mobile data transaction systems, was sharing its booth with several of its partners. Two of those exhibitors agreed with Baron and said they’re happy with the crowd drawn to Sapphire.

“The leads are pretty qualified. It seems very targeted,” said iAnywhere Product Manager Chris Gruber. IAnywhere is a subsidiary of Sybase Inc.

“This show has high-quality personnel compared to some of the other shows we’ve done. It’s drawing decision makers,” concurred Ted Beatty, Peak Technologies Inc.’s ERP (enterprise resource planning) delivery manager.

SAP executives devoted a good bit of time at the show to tossing slings and arrows at their company’s competition, particularly archrival Oracle Corp. Over at Oracle’s booth, representatives professed to be unaffected by the barbs.

“That’s the normal game between these two companies,” shrugged Gerhard Kuppler, Oracle’s director of corporate SAP accounts.

He said Oracle was at the show to maintain its relationship with SAP and keep their mutual customers happy. The Oracle booth had been well trafficked throughout the show, Kuppler said. Taking no chances, Oracle upped its crowd appeal by dispensing free cappuccinos, along with the usual coffee-cup and baseball-hat-filled goodie bags.

The winner for traffic-attracting marketing tactics was Catalyst International Inc., a supply chain software firm that housed an oxygen bar at its booth. A booth representative estimated that the bar was drawing about 300 users a day. Attendees could hook themselves up to jars of oxygen and inhale scent-tinged fresh air in flavors ranging from eucalyptus and lime to the more risqu