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SAP maps a user-friendly plan

The German titan will unveil at its fall TechEd conference, blueprints of its current and future technology called the Business Technology Solution Map.

    SAP is baring its soul to its customers.

    The German titan will unveil next week at its fall TechEd conference in Karlsruhe, Germany, blueprints of its current and future technology called the Business Technology Solution Map, CNET has learned.

    SAP will also reveal its plan to add Java programming to its software and its ongoing effort to clean up its interfaces so that anyone in a company can use SAP's products without extensive training.

    "[The technology map] is a pretty powerful tool for customers and prospects to look at what SAP has to offer and match it up to their existing requirements," said Joshua Greenbaum, analyst at Enterprise Applications Consulting in Berkeley, California. "There isn't anything new here but the maps do put the information in a format that is very accessible. No one else has anything like it. When a company looks at bringing on a product like R/3, the information on the basic technology is scattered all over the organization. There hasn't been a single repository of information on the technology until now."

    SAP designed the maps with the help of partners, customers, analysts, and prospects as a way of taking SAP specific lingo and business issues and translating them into common business language that users can understand.

    "The map does not include SAP specific slang, it is very generalized," Peter Graf, SAP's director of technology marketing, told CNET News.com this week. "It for mapping a company's business processes to the way SAP does things and it is the way that SAP will bring products to market in the future. It is a way to explain to customers and prospects [in business terms, not SAP terms] what the musts are in an SAP implementation."

    The maps also go into some detail on what SAP has planned down the road for its products. Graf said the idea is to give users a look at SAP's development plans four to five years down the road so the users can begin their own planning. But the details also give customers ammunition to keep the vendor to its word.

    "Now they have put all their cards on the table and they will be held to it," Greenbaum said. "So the trick now is to make sure that [SAP] and its implementation partners can put this together in an effective way."

    The maps are broken down into five segments. The first is "realization," which covers sizing, installation, configuration, migration, and testing plans that companies must map out before implementing the software.

    The second is "integration," including how to link all a firm's instances of SAP software together and the various business processes that it will support.

    The third segment is "extension," or how to tie complimentary software to SAP, as well as what interfaces will be needed for legacy systems or other software running, and any custom development that may be needed.

    Next comes "reliable operation," or managing the system once it's running. This map addresses in detail manageability, performance, availability, and security issues.

    Last is the "continuous change," which deals with how to plan for upgrades and what upgrades may be coming as well as change management and scalability issues. This is also where SAP reveals most of its future plans.

    On that future map will be the firm's plans to add Java programming to its product line up. SAP will unveil next week its effort to write its software in Java, which will make it much easier for users to integrate other products to SAP's.

    Currently, SAP relies almost entirely on its own proprietary programming language ABAP. The problem is, users have to be adept in ABAP to make any changes to R/3 or to build solid bridges to other software systems. By also writing its products in Java, SAP is hoping to ease that burden.

    "We are not replacing ABAP," Graf said. "We are giving people a choice. If you want to extend SAP and do it inside of the product, now you can do it with Java."

    Graf explained that SAP is writing Java code alongside the ABAP code and the languages will run side by side in R/3 and other SAP products.

    "Java is going to evolve into a very significant language for SAP," Greenbaum said. "It saves them a whole lot of trouble in terms of portability. In their customer base, a lot of new development is being done in Java and the Java knowledge base is growing tremendously. If users haven't sent their top programmers to ABAP school, they are sending to them to Java school."

    SAP is also throwing in some Bugs to make its product easier to use but these Bugs will be of the Volkswagen variety.

    As part of its EnjoySAP campaign to gather user ideas about how to make R/3 easier to use, SAP is giving away three new Volkswagen Beetles in a random drawing of those who fill out a questionnaire on SAP's products. SAP has also sent about 15 percent of its development force into the field to talk to customers and gather information on how to make the product easier to use.

    But beyond the marketing gimmick, Greenbaum said SAP needs to take on these issues if it is going to expand its product to more than just the hardcore users in a company.

    "There is a definite need to continually evolve the interface," he said. "SAP desperately wants to put some form of SAP on every desktop but that is not going to happen if you have that post mainframe, early client/server interface."

    Graf said SAP is already implementing some of the ideas in its front office products, of which the initial products will be available in the second quarter of next year. The contest ends December 31.