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SAP tries to go user-friendly

The company's new marketing campaign hopes to soften its image as a maker of complex, highly technical software systems.

    Image is everything. Obey your user.

    SAP is adopting that Sprite-like marketing campaign in hopes of softening its image as a maker of complex, highly technical software systems. The German software giant now is shooting for an image as a maker of much more friendly software that any user, be it the plant floor manager or a temporary worker doing data entry for the marketing department, can use with minimal training.

    "We have to learn that modern users, especially in this front office space, need something that is in their language, so they understand it," Hasso Plattner, chief executive and cofounder of SAP, told the approximately 15,000 people attending Sapphire, SAP's user group conference in Los Angeles this week.

    During the past 18 months, SAP has been developing software that stretches well beyond its traditional realm of enterprise resource planning systems. The new products manage back office corporate functions like manufacturing, financials, and human resources. SAP now is preparing to roll out software that handles the front of the corporate house, including sales force automation, customer service, and marketing management applications.

    But the move into these new markets means catering to a new style of user, one that needs a system as easy to use as Microsoft Word or Excel.

    So SAP is setting up a new layer of developers whose sole purpose is to take components built by the highly technical development staff, and then figure out the "business scenario" into which they fit. That is, the new developers will translate the software into terms the users for which they are intended can understand.

    "Since [traditional users] are working on components, they are detached, by definition, from the user," Plattner added. "The people working on the business scenarios are not removed and have to meet the users' needs. We are committed to getting to know the user."

    Much of SAP's new initiative is aimed at combating its old image. R/3 has long been regarded as a monster software system that requires and master's degree in R/3 to understand.

    "It's a good basic idea, but to influence the new users is to acknowledge that your old development system of technology, for technology, and by technology is no longer valid," said Joshua Greenbaum, analyst with the Hurwitz Group in Framingham, Massachusetts. "Certainly, SAP is trying to mitigate some of the fear of R/3. You need to consider this as an end run so that, as SAP goes after these new users, they are saying, 'Don't worry if the system is too ugly, you tell us how we to fix it and we will.' "

    Part of the strategy for cleansing that ugliness out of R/3 includes spiffing up the applications with more colorful interfaces and easy-to-understand icons.

    "ERP and front office applications are the two most important applications in corporations today," said Bruce Richardson, analyst at AMR Research in Boston. "SAP wants to copy the model of Microsoft Office and be idiot-proof. They need to be as pervasive as Microsoft Office. Remember, a large chunk of SAP's future growth is going to have to be from selling back to the installed base."

    SAP has a three-year plan to roll out the new applications with all their bells and whistles.