Widgets work wonders for end users, SAP says

SAP, a company best known for its back-end enterprise resource planning software, is starting to pay much closer attention to the front-end user interface through which customers will access information.

At a client briefing in Toronto this week, the head of the company’s new Business User development unit, Doug Merritt, outlined a strategy that will see SAP make use of online widgets, enhance the Duet technology co-developed with Microsoft and release a suite of corporate performance management (CPM) software.

Merritt, who joined SAP two years ago following stints at Oracle and PeopleSoft, said he was appointed to his current role following the departure of Shai Agassi, who led the development of SAP’s NetWeaver middleware strategy. He said the Business User division will build on the work started with NetWeaver, in that it takes SAP beyond its roots in business software to create a foundation to integrate other pieces of technology. “When we launched (NetWeaver), everyone said, ‘You’re an apps company, and you’re never going to be able to play in the platform space,’”

Merritt said, adding that SAP was forced to confront the fact that that the architecture requirements of corporate enterprises was changing by 2003. “We went from what I would call the philosophy of the ordered universe – that with enough human ingenuity you could create repeatable processes over and over and return your investment . . . once those first tasks were automated, though, we moved to the chaos theory of design, where organizations are dealing with moment-by-moment change.”

More recently, Merritt said, consumers have started experimenting with tagging, social networking sites and other Web 2.0 tools that influence their expectations of IT in the workplace. “People running the day-to-day activities of an organization are demanding the same level of empowerment,” he said.

SAP is responding by working with widgets – small online applications that can reside on the desktop. Merritt’s presentation included a demonstration of sample widgets that would deliver information from back-end SAP systems. One widget, for example, showed a sales pipeline of potential customer leads and who was responsible for them. The widget not only displayed the information but allows users to take action such as adding a sales rep to a particular team.

SAP is not alone in exploring what some are calling “enterprise 2.0” applications, but so far CIOs and other top executives have been slower to recognize their value, according to industry experts.

“Companies look at this and say, ‘I understand the technology; I just have no idea how I can make this part of my corporate activities,’” said Ron Schmelzer, an analyst at ZapThink LLC in Waltham, Mass.

CIOs also have concerns about security, governance, IT support and integration of Web 2.0 applications with existing systems. And the very nature of Web 2.0 — distributed and egalitarian — makes some managers nervous. “Web 2.0 is decentralized,” explained Schmelzer. “There’s no centralized authority to mandate or control.”

Merritt said the next step is to integrate Web 2.0 widgets and other tools into existing enterprise ID management systems and to ensure role-based access to some of them. SAP’s Duet technology, meanwhile, delivers SAP data through Office applications such as Outlook. Merritt told the Toronto audience SAP has licensed more than 400,000 users of Duet so far. While Duet will focus on those users who want to work with familiar applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, widgets will fill in the gaps where Duet doesn’t make sense.

SAP’s CPM suite, meanwhile, already exists in disparate parts, Merritt said. Part of his role will be bringing together product lines from acquisitions such as Pilot Software and OutlookSoft.

Merritt said SAP is getting closer to business users in part because IT departments are doing the same thing. “They’re no longer the final authority but the guideposts to generate an answer to a problem,” he said. “IT’s job is to provide frameworks and tools, but the assembly will be by the users, both inside and outside the organization.”

— with files from IDG Newswire

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