Why SAP struggles to keep its developer ecosystem onside

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In the run up to SAPPHIRE Now, SAP's first customer flogathon of the season, key questions are emerging from different camps that put the question of the company's commitment to developers in sharp focus.

By way of history, SAP has built one of many programmes for SAP advocates that punches well above its weight known as SAP Mentors. [Disclosure: I was an SAP Mentor for four years before retiring at the end of 2011.]

The group, which SAP touts as being amongst its brightest and best is largely drawn from independent SAP developers though there are some business types involved in the scheme. Apart from limited representation from the likes of Atos, Australia Post, Deloitte and IBM, there is almost no representation from the big developer shops like Accenture, Wipro and the like.

This group has established a solid reputation for providing knowledgable, vocal and sometimes uncomfortable feedback to SAP executives.

In many ways, both individually and as a group, they represent what I see as the heart and soul of the best in SAP development. The group, which roughly numbers 100 people from around the world gets some of the best access to people up and down the SAP hierarchy of any group I know. But there are big problems ahead with which this group struggles. Those problems go to the essence of how SAP does or does not reach its stretch goal of one billion users by 2015.

Don't get me wrong. There is plenty of willingness inside the company to get to the stated numbers:

"Indeed, we have ignored developers for too long. All of us at SAP: wake up and start to realize that a lively and complete developer ecosystem is critical to our success!"

Sanjay Poonen who runs the mobile go to market has been adamant that the issues will be fixed but I believe there are internal conflicts that will prevent SAP from getting even remotely close. In another post I said that for all the good words coming out of SAP:

"My only caveat is that the halls of SAP are littered with the bones of those who have committed to taking on this Herculean task. For SAP to reach the developers it needs requires active and vocal developer advocacy from the board down into the second and third management layers such that SAP’s immensely powerful legal team is brought to heel."

Here's how it pans out.

Much of the focus for reaching this huge number centres upon three distinct areas of the business: HANA-related, mobile and cloud.

Those I speak with, including the most senior people in SAP's developer groups believe they cannot reach the number of people they wish to without the active cooperation of external developers. They need lots of them. One number puts the figure as high as a million developers. Yet internally, SAP is focused on nurturing its relationships with the large developer shops as the key to getting the applications needed to attract many more users than there are today.

What SAP doesn't understand is that those developer shops have no business context through which they will be encouraged to share a single line of code.

It is absolutely in the big SIs' interests to keep everything they do locked behind closed doors for sale, resale and refactoring to the next poor schmuck who wants functionality that does not exist in the standard package or who has business processes they believe represent business differentiators.

That of itself is highly limiting. It means in effect that any attempt to truly encourage the big shops to participate in public application stores or developer discourse will fall on deaf ears as those same SIs seek to ring fence their customers. It is the road to nowhere because as we already know, public app stores provide the sunshine that encourages the best apps to blossom in the market place. It is a reflection of an old model which the cloud not only disrupts but actively encourages that disruption. It gets worse.

I am seeing strategies that look as though they are designed to shut out developers. Right now, SAP is prepared to subsidise HANA sales to the tune of $337 million:

"By funding SAP’s own services to assist with HANA, SAP is taking work away from partners, who typically play a key role in SAP implementations and migrations. In response to my question on this, SAP executives said that it will bring partners into this work at some point in the future."

SAP's $155 million HANA development fund may run into problems:

"Looking back at SaaS and other tech start-ups over the past decade, most of them chose to build on open-source database technologies, such as MySQL or PostgreSQL. The reason, of course, is that open-source infrastructure minimizes their own costs as they grow. It also leaves more customer budget available to invest in the application, instead of the required infrastructure."

My point of view is that SAP could do as well if not better by devoting matching funds to its mobile, cloud and on-demand developers.

SAP on the other hand says that it does best when hunting for big deals and can't get its collective head around small app shops delivering large value. I find that an incredibly poor excuse when I see examples of small shops doing well enough from their individual efforts from very limited deployments of useful and repeatable complementary solutions. How much better could those small shops do if they had an open storefront sponsored by SAP that creates the environment to both show and sell these solutions? It's the Apple/Salesforce.com model and we know it works. But then SAP has issues unique to its way of operating.

SAP is terrified that anything it endorses will end up in a lawsuit and as a result, it has created an environment where it is difficult to get access to sandbox environments, where the terms under which developers can use SAP technology are far from clear and which require rigorous (and expensive) testing. Check this comment from a recent post on SAP Community Network by Martin English who is - you guessed it - an SAP Mentor:

"I'm a bit confused over the pricing for http://www.sapcloudcomputing.com/. Is this intended to drive me onto AWS or other Cloud vendors ? Looking at http://www.sapcloudcomputing.com/pricing/price-list.html, I reckon I'm out over $80 in fixed and monthly charges for an ECC6 IDES, before I get started.

"The real issue, even with the Developer and Trial Editions is the language of the licensing agreements. These are not clear, are incomplete and provide no indication of SAP's intent. For example. There's no legal way to get a copy of the SAP GUI or NWBC, if you don't have an S-number. There's limitations on how many (in total) devices can connect. There's confusion over ownership of anything developed using the software. There's confusion over where the systems can be installed. There's confusion over what we can do with the Installation downloads.

"Many other development communities have an entry cost approaching or at zero. SAP need to make the License Agreements so clear that there is no possibility of FUD becoming a barrier to the take up of Developer Editions."

That is only one problem, the broad strokes of which are repeated across the entire SAP stack and which go back a number of years.

In the pure on-demand world, Dick Hirsch believes there has been very little attention paid to getting developers onside:

"Although many speak about a more generalized idea of the relationship between SAP and the developers, it is only when you look more closely at this relationship do you see that some areas (mobile, Gateway, Hana,etc) receive all the attention while other areas (primarily OnDemand) are largely ignored - I haven't seen oodles of time talking up OnDemand devs. This unbalanced approach has major repercussions since a weak OnDemand developer ecosystem means that the ability of all those new mobile developers is limited to creating SUP-based apps rather than Cloud-based ones - this restriction reduces the overall appeal of all the new partnerships."

Dick's original post demonstrates the lack of resources on SAP Community Network as his primary evidence driving his conclusions. So now we have a picture where the focus IS on the three areas I outlined yet major stumbling blocks remain.

For as long as I can remember, legal seemed to be the proverbial fly in the ointment but I am rapidly concluding that it is much more than that.

In a recent Business Insider story, an un-named source believes the company is currently being driven by short term sales:

"The short-term focus on selling is pissing customers off. There's so much pressure on them to buy and there just aren't the big gigantic deals -- that's not happening any more," the SAP insider said.

"What's worse, the source told us that SAP's attitude is actually discouraging big companies from spending more with SAP over time. Fortune 500 customers that want to map out three-to-five year migration plans for their ERP systems are pressured to instead buy stuff right away and forgo the planning, we were told."

I'm not a huge fan of wholly un-named source material but I see a grain of truth in what the author asserts.

The last year has seen an increased focus by SAP on monetising anything that has IP attached to it. And not just monetising but applying vintage champagne pricing. History teaches us that companies which are laser focused on short term sales targets almost always give up something important on the developer side. It happened at Apple in the 90s, HP in the 2000s and, for a short while, under Leo Apotheker's reign at SAP. It's been going on at Oracle ever since it went on a spending spree rolling up the enterprise market. I don't see quite the same picture at SAP today but the danger signs are there for all to see.

Vinnie Mirchandani says: "Their poor CTO, Vishal Sikka often comes across defensive. He should not be. SAP development is usually not the problem. Legal, business development, product rollout, field groups always seem to be unwilling or unable to keep up."

So what we have is a multi-headed hydra keeping the well meaning types at bay. This will not work as a sustainable strategy for any part of SAP's business let alone cloud/mobile/HANA. All it does is breed further discontent among the very people who are most willing to lend their support to SAP. Does that make sense to you? It sure as heck doesn't to me.

After spending more than 20 years at the IT coal face across a variety of industries, often in finance-related roles, Dennis Howlett is using that accumulated experience to hold vendors to account for what they deliver to customers. He believes the cloud computing model provides the potential to offer transformational business benefits that have yet to be fully understood or articulated. In early 2011, Howlett celebrated 40 years in and around IT. It was a very small party.