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Creating a kinder, gentler SAP

The German software giant is expected to unveil a colorful, easier-to-use new interface for its R/3 software Monday that resembles an Internet portal Web page.

SAP is taking a friendly new turn.

The German software giant Monday is expected to unveil a colorful, easier-to-use new interface for its R/3 software that more closely resembles an Internet portal Web page than the usual drab business applications.

Details are expected to be unveiled at an event to be held at SAP's labs in Palo Alto, California. The announcements build on EnjoySAP, chairman Hasso Plattner's vision for the company, which aims to make applications easier to use.

With the announcements, SAP is leading the ranks of enterprise resource planning (ERP) players that plan to expand their hold on the corporate desktop by pushing their reach beyond their traditional corporate user base.

While a host of software companies rush to declare themselves "portals" to corporate information, analysts say the strategy makes much more sense for ERP vendors. The software they sell manages key financial data, human resources, and manufacturing information that's more usable--and more accessible--through a well-designed user interface.

"SAP has to protect its client base and expand," said Harry Tse, analyst at Boston-based Yankee Group.

SAP's new interface is expected to have a look and feel similar to Yahoo's "My Yahoo" customized Web pages, analysts said. The interface will be able to be configured so users can tap critical information from SAP's back-end financial systems and couple that with personalized content.

"The current interface is not accessible enough for a very broad user base and SAP and everyone else's goal with this is to sell more seats," adds Joshua Greenbaum, analyst at Enterprise Applications Consulting.

How will the new interface work? Marketing employees, for example, could use a portal designed for their department that lets them access data on retail buying habits, scan the company's production system to track current orders, and investigate competitors' business by plugging into market analysis tools.

Soon, SAP is expected to roll out 30 self-service applications that can be accessed from the corporate desktop over the Internet. About 100 more applications are expected to follow. With the new interface, coupled with the self-service applications, SAP expects to reach 10 million users within three years, according to a Credit Suisse First Boston research report.

The question is how SAP's initiative differs from PeopleSoft's rollout of its portal-type plan last November, called e-business. E-business meshes content from a variety of sources such as healthcare companies, retirement plan administrators, and suppliers into a Web-based package that's intended to be as easy to use as any Web portal.

SAP is currently beta testing with 15 customers its own business-to-business procurement application, which should ship by April. The product is used for procuring office supplies and maintenance and repair items. The company plans to eventually set up worldwide marketplace exchanges, where suppliers can directly update a catalog and buyers can make purchases directly.