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SAP calls for software that coexists

The software industry's future depends on tearing down technology differences and developing applications that work together, SAP co-chairman Hasso Plattner says.

SAN FRANCISCO--The software industry needs to tear down technology differences created by giants like Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Oracle and develop applications that work together regardless of whose hardware they run on or what programming language they're written in, SAP co-chairman Hasso Plattner said Wednesday.

"This industry will not survive in the next 20 years with applications built by a few big companies," Plattner said in his keynote speech at the JavaOne conference. "This industry will only survive if there is a community of developers building applications that can work together across many systems."

It's a mandate SAP, one of the world's largest software companies, is grappling with itself. Plattner co-founded the company nearly 30 years ago and has since grown its products into a vast collection of software used to automate a company's business functions on every level, from its call center to its manufacturing plant. SAP enjoyed $6.4 billion in sales last year.

The company originally prospered on the premise that one integrated set of SAP software, now consisting of more than 100 million lines of a proprietary code called ABAP, was all a company needed. But now that Java programmers slightly outnumber an estimated 1.2 million ABAP programmers, Plattner has changed his tune.

"With software, we have a problem," Plattner said. "We, the vendors, always want to do it better than the other guy. SAP is no different from anyone else in this respect, but we have to overcome this. We have to develop standards so we can port what we develop on system X onto system Y with relatively little effort."

Over the last five years, SAP has introduced some applications that operate on a combination of Java and ABAP application servers. These new kinds of applications, such as corporate-portal and project-management software, don't store much data of their own. Instead, they render data from other computer systems, including those built by companies other than SAP.

Still, much more work lies ahead in making the vision of one happy software family a reality, said Plattner. While the industry is busy creating the underpinnings of open computing with standards like Extensible Markup Language, still missing are what Plattner calls "semantic" standards, or how to make different computers recognize data about a business partner, a customer, or an order and know what to do with it. In other words, said Plattner, the software industry is building an alphabet but hasn't yet invented a common language.

"The alternative is that the United Nations decides that the world goes Microsoft," Plattner said. "This is a realistic threat. I was not able to convince Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer to join this club."

"What this community has to do to be strong and to be a relevant partner," Plattner said, "is to stick together and work on these standards so software can become a standard component like a jet engine is part of jet or a gear box is part of a car. That has to be the philosophy of our industry in the future."