iPhone & ERP Go Together Like PB & Jelly

The combination offers a glimpse of enterprise software's future: flexible, intuitive and mobile access to business data.

I know what you're thinking: Puh-lease, Tom. iPhones are very cool, and it's great for me, personally, and we do let some of our employees get their corporate e-mail over their iPhone. But giving executives access to ERP data-intensive dashboards and critical KPIs, letting sales guys input customer data and see current marketing info? What have you been smoking ? (Nothing, Sir or Madame.)

Now, I don't own an iPhone, and I don't own an ERP system. But I do think the combination of the new-age, highly usable iPhone with middle-age, somewhat-usable ERP technology offers a glimpse of an enterprise software future desired by executives and next-generation managers: flexible, intuitive and mobile access to enterprise data.

By now, you've probably heard about NetSuite's entry into this space. In September, the Web-based ERP vendor unveiled a free "NetSuite for iPhone" app offering access to its "business management software suite." What iPhone users get: real-time dashboards, report snapshots and scorecards; customer, sales, marketing and financial data; calendar management and other productivity tools.

Why the iPhone? NetSuite CFO Jim McGeever told me they targeted the iPhone because it was the first handheld device that they believed could deliver the desired functionality and UI—not only visually appealing apps but also the ability to see ERP data and input ERP data. That's something McGeever says his BlackBerry just couldn't do. On the day the iPhone launched, NetSuite execs logged on to a NetSuite app on the Safari browser. "And it worked. We were blown away," McGeever says. "We realized that we needed to make our own UI—not a Web browser UI. But a very iPhone-like, easy-to-use input UI that would make it very usable." (For more, see 5 Questions with NetSuite's CFO.)

NetSuite's iPhone app isn't perfect. For one thing, the company knows it has to nail the ability to "write back" into the ERP system. NetSuite's primary goal for the application's initial foray was to provide executives with a "360 degree view" of their business, conceded Malin Huffman, NetSuite's principal product manager, to the IDG News Service. The company, Huffman said, plans to boost write-back capabilities over time.

Yeah, well, this is all well and good, Tom, but find me a CIO who's actually thinking about this and doing something with it.

Meet Todd Pierce, CIO of Genentech, a $13 billion San Francisco-based biotech company. In an eye-opening interview with Abbie Lundberg (former CIO magazine editor-in-chief), Pierce had almost the same reaction to the iPhone as NetSuite's McGeever did. "When I saw the touch-screen interface, I said, 'This is it,'" Pierce tells Lundberg. "It" being a newfound ability to deliver business applications.

Pierce then goes on to describe his nascent strategies to take advantage of SaaS technologies (such as Google Apps) and move more business applications to the iPhone:

"We spent 30 years figuring out how to get 200 drop-down menus with 3,000 features. And a whole industry of training and manuals. And now we're delivering single-function apps that require no training. And they're absolutely fantastic. I hooked SAP up to my iPhone for shopping cart approvals; 30 percent of all of our approvals are now done on iPhones into SAP because I stripped away all of that complexity that's in the SAP mySRM. I spent $10 million making my purchasing system usable on SAP. I spent $10,000 making it usable on my iPhone. You do the math. And, which would you rather do?
Would you rather approve the shopping cart on your iPhone? Or would you rather log in, literally, you can answer three e-mails by the time it loads all the tabs and screens and all the pieces, and then try to remember behind which of these mystery tabs is my answer. It's like playing a game of Jeopardy every time. Is this it? Is this it? Is this where I go? Oh, look, thank God I found it. It's like a treasure map. And that's just so you can buy something. I mean, come on."

Whether iPhone functionality is going to make a customer sign on with NetSuite over another ERP vendor is an interesting proposition. For those global companies using Oracle and SAP right now, probably not. For small-ish, tech-savvy companies with iPhones already in use, it might work. Enterprise System Spectator blogger and Strativa consultant Frank Scavo opines that there are many challenges for NetSuite as it tries to lure away long-time SAP customers. To me, the iPhone offering might just be the cherry on top of a sundae for some companies.

That's not to trivialize the iPhone's place in businesses today. Even if this is just a glimpse of what ERP will look and feel like in the future, then I think we might need of a name change: iERP, anyone?

Clearly, the iPhone is ready for the enterprise. Is your enterprise ready for the iPhone?

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