Thursday, April 18, 2024

A Partner-Friendly SAP in the Works

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One of the axioms of the software industry, and all of high-tech for that

matter, is that the bigger the company, the worse it is at partnering.

In the classic model, interactions between large and small partners are

more dictatorial than collaborative, more monologue than dialogue. In

most cases the best a small partner could ever hope for is to be left

alone by its larger partner. In all too many cases, very much the

opposite occurred, with various forms of carnivorous activity replacing

any pretense for partnership — often with fatal results.

So when SAP recently declared at an analyst meeting that it was ready to

partner in order to build out its NetWeaver eco-system, the temptation to

classify this latest attempt as another empty promise was understandable.

SAP’s history of partnerships, particularly with other software

companies, made it safe to assume that history, bound to repeat itself,

would prevail once again.

This time, however, things are going to be different.

The reason is simple: SAP really needs to build out an ecosystem of

software applications, components, and services based on its NetWeaver

platform. Nothing less than the future of the company depends on

NetWeaver permeating the world of software the way Wintel has permeated

the desktop.

Success makes SAP the Intel of software — dominant, rich, and

benevolently (one hopes) dictatorial. Failure makes it, at best, like

Apple, relegated to also-ran status, with no clout and a legacy of lost

opportunities and sour grapes.

Don’t mistake SAP’s needs with a new-found altruism. This is more of an

ego-system than anything else. SAP is still the main beneficiary — the

top of the food chain, the alpha-vendor, and the one slated to take a

major portion of its ego-system’s revenues to the bank.

But looking out for Number One now also means looking out for Numbers Two

through Five Thousand, or whatever the final partner count ends up being.

That means SAP must be committed to protecting these partners from its

own rapaciousness, while making sure that their mutual customers all

enjoy the fruits of a model-driven, plug-and-play services architecture

based on NetWeaver. And, by the way, they have to do all of that while

still ensuring that there’s a big enough piece of the pie left for the

partners to live long and prosper.

The Wintel model shows us what can result from the success of the SAP

ego-system. Say what you will about Windows and Office, those of us old

enough to remember what the PC world was like before file format

compatibility and USB-based hardware plug-and-play know that Wintel has

lowered the cost of owning and running a desktop to a fraction of what it

used to be. All with an enormous gain in productivity for end users and

real success for some — though not all — of the Wintel partners.

How can I be so sure that SAP means it this time?

Simple — two members of SAP’s management board, Shai Agassi and Peter

Zencke, said so. Don’t worry, I haven’t suddenly gone soft and now

believe everything a software exec tells me. But years of watching SAP

have taught me that two board members publicly committing the company to

a project or direction means that the arguments and discussions are over,

and a consensus has been reached. At this point, the full weight of the

SAP juggernaut is put in play, and all that’s left is the execution.

So can SAP’s ego-system become the Wintel of enterprise software?

There’s no lock yet. IBM and Microsoft remain committed to similar dreams

of dominance and hegemony. But for now, the prospect of gaining access to

SAP’s almost 30,000 installations and its multi-billion dollar market is

already pretty interesting — making it relatively easy and pain-free for

partners should be downright tempting. We’ll have to see the proof points

— fast, low-cost certification, great co-marketing, good channel and

product overlap management, and real non-competition promises. But I

would bet that there’s enough will power at SAP to ensure that a way to

make this work will win out.

Because in the end, SAP really doesn’t have a choice. Being the Apple of

enterprise software just isn’t going to cut it.

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