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Influencer Summit offers window on what's coming in mobility, analytics and in-memory functionality. But is the social networking strategy missing in action?

By Doug Henschen, InformationWeek

Enhancements to on-premise, on-demand, mobile and analytic capabilities: That's the short-list of what to expect from SAP in the coming year.

What some thought was missing -- but is mainly just suffering a lack of high-level attention -- is the company's social networking strategy. That's my take on day one of SAP's annual Influencer Summit, which got underway Tuesday in Santa Clara, California.

In-memory computing and mobile computing are getting all the attention here while up the road in San Francisco, at Salesforce.com Dreamforce event, social collaboration is getting lots of love from CEO Marc Benioff on down.

SAP's co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe kicked off the Influencer Summit with a 30-minute presentation delivered from Germany via satellite. After reviewing at length the company's recent accomplishments -- the Sybase acquisition, the launch of Business ByDesign and the release of the SAP HANA appliance and so on -- Hagemann Snabe finally turned to what's ahead.

In on-premise applications, Hagemann Snabe said SAP will accelerate its delivery of modularized enhancement packs that can be quickly installed. Business ByDesign, SAP's primary on-demand offering, will see enhancements in in-memory, real-time analytics.

The first quarter of 2011 will see a new on-demand sales force automation application featuring in-memory analysis and mobile delivery capabilities. Line-of-business extension applications will also show up next year, following in the targeted mold of SAP's on-demand Carbon Impact tracking and reporting application.

Mobile support and in-memory analysis are linchpins of SAP's long-term strategy, so Hagemann Snabe told attendees to expect added functionality throughout the portfolio in 2011 and beyond.

Vishal Sikka, SAP's CTO, who was here in the flesh, detailed how the Sybase Unwired mobility platform will soon support SAP's entire Business Suite by way of the "Project Gateway" back-end integration, due in the first half of 2011. The first half will also see and software development kit that will enable partners and customers to build mobile apps on the platform.

"In-memory" is synonymous with real-time analytic insight, and Sanjay Poonen, executive vice president and general manager, summed up the analytics-and-mobility-everywhere push as follows: "Any time you have an application you're going to generate data; of course that will drive analytics and of course you would want to mobilize that."

Social networking and collaboration did come up (here and there, briefly) in the top-executive presentations. But it's telling that a stand-out question during a closing Q&A session was, "What is SAP going to do to participate in social networking?" SAP does have more than one answer on this front, which I'll get to in a moment, but the bottom line was that collaboration and social networking was not a front-and-center topic. Contrast this afterthought treatment to the full-court press Salesforce.com has put on the launch of Chatter throughout 2010.

Salesforce.com initially gave Chatter's collaborative capabilities away for free to most customers; but as announced at Dreamforce event, the company is now extending basic Chatter capabilities to the entire subscriber base at no charge. A Chatter Plus version with additional account, contact, dashboarding and security functionality is $15 per user, per month.

So what's SAP's answer to collaboration and social networking?

At the top of the list is SAP StreamWork, a free, cloud-based application that anybody can sign up to use at sapstreamwork.com. The app debuted as a beta service in March, but there hasn't been much fanfare from SAP, and executives have declined to detail the number of users registered to date.

The plans for StreamWork are actually quite extensive, with an Enterprise Edition launched just this week with pre-built integrations to SAP's CRM, PLM and BusinessObjects Strategy Management applications. The grander ambition is to integrate StreamWork with 16 major SAP applications whereby it can be separately launched or invoked as a service directly within the application experience.

The list of collaborative activities within the free edition of StreamWork is short, but capabilities grow as you upgrade to the Professional Edition ($9 per user, per month) and Enterprise Edition ($18 per user, per month).

With SAP StreamWork Enterprise Edition, which self installs behind the firewall as a virtual appliance, customers can integrate data streams from SAP or third-party applications. Administrators can also meter and monitor data access and control usage, so you can extend collaboration to partners and customers with assurance of security controls.

There's more to StreamWork, including compatibility with Google Apps and support for Google's Open ID standard, but its cost and complexity could well be stumbling blocks.

Since users can invite anybody -- inside or outside the enterprise -- to take part in a StreamWork activity, customers will likely going to feel compelled to add administrative controls. But at $18 per user, per month, they might be tempted to use popular, inside-the-firewall collaborative options such as SharePoint. It's not quite the same sort of collaboration experience, but budget-minded CIOs will be tempted to think it's enough.

StreamWork also isn't as simple and intuitive as it could be. Where Salesforce.com can honestly say, "if you can use Facebook, you can use Chatter," SAP can't point to a popular parallel in the consumer world. SAP executive David Meyer tells me a simplified interface and compelling features including social network intelligence are on the way, but he also admits "the race is on" among apps vendors to get customers using built-in collaborative functionality.

In the CRM realm, SAP's other options for social networking tie in with the Facebook and Twitter communities. CRM customers can launch loyalty programs and viral marketing campaigns through Facebook. Twitter tweets can be analyzed using BusinessObjects sentiment analysis capabilities, and you can also launch outbound campaigns (like e-mail, only shorter) to Twitter followers.

In short, SAP is making efforts in the area of social networking and collaboration, but they're not getting much high-profile attention. Few analysts at this week's event were up to speed on StreamWork and the only presentation on the topic was relegated to the afternoon of the last day of the event.

Perhaps SteamWork's Enterprise Edition will sell itself once it's a service that can be embedded within 16 different applications.

For now, SAP's emphasis is on in-memory computing and mobility, and that's probably where it should be. Real-time insight is a differentiator for SAP and its customers, and mobile devices are more personal, engaging, business-driving and popular as a point of interaction than any social network (though you can also tap all these collaboration tools via mobile devices).

The difference in emphasis at Salesforce.com and at SAP is partly due to the difference in expectations. As a young, cloud-focused company, the goal at Salesforce.com is growth at all cost, so a high-profile campaign that drives far more publicity than profit is just part of doing business. For SAP, a mature company measured primarily by its profitability, in-memory and mobility are difference makers that have far greater promise to spur upgrades and add-ons from the installed base.

The danger for SAP -- as we saw with what Hagemann Snabe himself described as "a long and painful birth" for SAP Business ByDesign -- is that its cautious embrace of cloud computing and social networking will leave it perceived, as Benioff tags it, as a "status quo" player when the company wants to be known as an innovator.

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Vijay Nachimuthu

By Vijay Nachimuthu

Vijay Nachimuthu is a Managing Principal of AltaFlux. His blogs mainly focuses on latest cloud technology trends and its impact on enterprises.