SAP mobile developer improvements - SAP still lags

Yesterday, SAP announced improvements to its mobile developer programs, among other things. A good FAQ is available. The software being discussed is primarily Sybase's Unwired Platform (SUP), which includes support for backend data-stores, heterogenous application development (i.e. write once, run on multiple platforms), and libraries for managing complexities of mobile development like data synchronization.

The announcement of more developer access to SAP's mobile platform allows developers to use SAP-provided Amazon EC2 instances with SUP installed on them. This mirrors similar announcements for SAP's HANA platform earlier this year. SAP also announced a new partner framework which makes the partnership process much easier to understand. Both announcements are major improvements for SAP's mobile efforts.

That said, SAP still lags its competition significantly from a developer engagement perspective and these announcements underscore the fact that SAP has been unable to make the quantum leap necessary to become a player in the minds of non-SAP developers. There are two reasons for this: the immediate problem that keeps changing as SAP addresses symptoms, and the deeper reason that is keeping SAP from achieving the change required.

The immediate problem SAP seems unable to overcome is that the basis of any successful developer push is software that can be used for development. The AWS-only form-factor that SAP has chosen for SUP and HANA is sub-standard for development purposes. In some ways it may reflect a view of software development from the days before standard use of source control and local build/test environments. The AWS-only approach precludes setting up a local development environment, which is standard practice for most developers today (and for good reason). It also incurs a relatively small but unavoidable cost on developers, forcing them to pay for EC2 instances they may not otherwise need.

Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft all provide easily accessible, downloadable versions of their database software for developers to use. SAP does not. Appcelerator, PhoneGap, and Sencha all provide easily accessible, downloadable versions of their mobile development platforms. SAP does not.

SAP claims that it is trying to appeal to the larger non-SAP developer community. But developers in those communities will look at what is on offer and see a company they consider a dinosaur asking them to give up their modern development practices and pay for the privilege. I think most developers will just say, "No thanks".

The deeper problem is that SAP still hasn't come to terms with the fact that developer engagement is not something you can tack on to a product at the end of the product cycle. The product must be designed for developers. It must be launched along with developer programs including downloads available to developers. And the product team needs to engage with developers on an ongoing basis after launch. I'm no developer engagement professional, but from what I've seen of the industry, these are the absolute minimum requirements.

And yet, from a cultural perspective it is clear that SAP has not embraced developer engagement. Sybase launched SUP 2.0 over a year ago, and only now has it launched an arguably usable (but certainly not ideal) developer environment. HANA is one of the products where SAP is attempting most aggressively to appeal to developers, and the AWS-environment for HANA became available only a couple of months before the 1-year anniversary of HANA's public launch.

SAP needs to achieve a quantum leap in their developer engagement culture. Otherwise it's unlikely that any of its foundational technology products become breakout successes. Thanks to the hard work of many within SAP, it's possible that SAP could succeed in spite of itself. But it's certainly making it harder than it needs to be.