Skating to where the puck is

Being an SAP Mentor is an interesting situation. The relationship with SAP usually feels amazingly collaborative, but occasionally uncomfortably adversarial. ThIs is probably a healthy place for a relationship with a massive organization to be. Every organization includes many great people and interactions with those people are always delightful. Every organization is also, as an organization, predisposed to get the answers to certain questions consistently right and the answers to other sorts of questions consistently wrong.

One such question that SAP has consistently gotten wrong in the past is how to push technology adoption among a massive install base. Historically, it would appear that SAP has tended to try to monetize upgrades to underlying technology in order to recoup development costs or profit from its technology offerings. Netweaver, BW, Visual Composer, add-ons like SSO and Gateway, Personas, Business Client, and HANA* are all technologies in which SAP has either underinvested due to lack of direct revenue potential (BW especially) or has tried to monetize. The result is that widely deployed "free" technology from SAP often stagnates while advanced technology with an additional cost often sees limited adoption in SAP's install base.

This outcome is terrible for SAP's business. It makes it very difficult for SAP to keep its application offerings competitive in the marketplace. The reason is that basic application functionality to be competitive is often dependent on improvements in underlying technology. But if technology is either widely deployed and under-featured or decently featured but not widely deployed, then applications need to use only the under-featured technology stack in order to have a large enough potential install base to justify development costs. In other words, SAP often forces itself to build applications on sub-par technology.

We see this dynamic constantly with SAP. One example is UI technology. Clearly a long-standing weakness of SAP's applications has been user-interface and user-experience. The SAP GUI is outdated and SAP's attempts to improve on it like the Business Client have, in my opinion, been torpedoed by SAP's monetization reflex. They haven't initially been better enough to see widespread adoption under a monetization scheme, and with lack of adoption, investment has faded. A similar dynamic played out with SAP's support for Flash and Silverlight as UI technologies for years after it had become clear they were destined for the trash-heap of web-UI delivery technologies.

And yet, over the last 4 years, SAP has been able to overcome this tendency in one area that may be incredibly important to its long-term business prospects around the newly announced S/4HANA. In the case of a key succession of technologies, SAP has been able to do something different, with impressive results. Those technologies: Gateway, SAP UI5, and Fiori**.

Initially, all seemed to be going well. SAP developed Gateway in part due to prodding from influencers like SAP Mentors around the need for a modern, RESTful API layer in SAP applications to allow the development of custom user interfaces and add-ons in a sustainable manner. DJ Adams and others showed the way with projects like the Alternative Dispatch Layer (in 2009), to make development of these APIs easier. Uwe Fetzer taught the ABAP stack to speak JSON. And suddenly one could fairly easily create modern-looking APIs on SAP systems. SAP folded a lot of those learnings into Gateway, which was a great way to push the tools for building modern APIs into SAP's applications and out to the install-base.

Well, it would have been, but SAP made its usual mistake: it attempted to monetize Gateway.

The result of the monetization attempt could be predicted well enough. It would make roll-out of Gateway to the SAP install base slow, at best. Fiori would be delayed because it would need to build out its own API layer rather than relying on Gateway technology. Applications like Simple Finance or S/4HANA that are dependent on Fiori would subsequently be delayed, if they were created at all. Perhaps Fiori's roll-out is delayed by a year, Simple Finance by 2 years, and S/4HANA isn't announced until 2018.

But S/4HANA was announced in January 2015. So what went differently this time?

Fortunately, back in 2011, shortly after the initial Gateway monetization strategy was announced, SAP Mentors like Graham Robinson and other community members stepped in to explain why this was a mistake and push back against the strategy, both publicly and privately. While clearly not the only reason for SAP's change of heart, this feedback from the community was powerful, and ultimately SAP revised Gateway licensing in 2012 so that it made sense for SAP, its partners, and customers to build new applications using Gateway.

This revision set us on the path to relatively quick uptake of SAP UI5 (a modern browser-based front-end framework which leverages the Gateway APIs) and later Fiori and the Fiori apps (most of which are based on UI5 and Gateway APIs). With Fiori, SAP again thought short-term and attempted to monetize Fiori, only reversing course and including Fiori with existing Business Suite licenses after similar pressure from another group of SAP Mentors who had experienced customers' frustration with SAP's stagnant user-experience. These Mentors, community members, and analysts were able to communicate the role Fiori needed to play in guarding against SAP customers migrating to cloud vendors offering a more compelling user-experience story.

Fiori, meanwhile, is a hit and serves as the basis for Simple Finance and now S/4HANA - SAP's recently announced blockbuster refresh of the entire Business Suite offering, which SAP clearly hopes will drive its business for the next 10 years. Would that be happening now if SAP had remained on its standard course of attempting to monetize Gateway? I don't think so. The interaction with SAP on these topics often left some feathers a bit ruffled, but it sure must be nice for those like Graham and DJ to see some of the fruits of those discussions in major products like S/4HANA.

*A note on HANA: I think that HANA may be the exception in this story. Unlikely most of SAP's other technology offerings, HANA is good enough to be competitive on its own, and not simply as a platform for SAP's applications. The results are not yet in on the HANA monetization strategy, but things are looking OK, if not great. Of course, Graham has something to say about that, and what he says is always worth reading.

** Fiori is actually a design language focused on user-experience and a line of mini-applications implementing the Fiori design language to improve SAP Business Suite user-experience for specific business processes. However in the context of S/4HANA we can think of Fiori as a prerequisite and enabling component, like a technology prerequisite.