SAP Sapphire 2010: New Look, New Execs...A New SAP?

SAP took some hard body blows in 2009 but did not get knocked out. With new leadership, will it wow the user base at this year's annual gathering, or will there be more marketing talk than walk?

Could it have been only a year ago when SAP's latest CEO, Leo Apotheker, broke free of the "Henning" training wheels and delivered his inaugural Sapphire keynote as the ERP vendor's sole chief executive?

At the time, SAP and Apotheker were caught up in several critical and controversial business happenstances: SAP's 2009 revenue and net income seemed to dip lower with each succeeding quarter; its customer base was in near-riot mode over SAP's maintenance and support fee plans; and Business ByDesign, its hyped on-demand business software package, was still not ready for general availability. All the while, the global economy continued to muck about like a befuddled pig in her muddy pen.

While the location of the U.S. Sapphire event will be the same (Orlando), the look and feel of next week's 2010 conference will undoubtedly be very different—all of the bad times and negativism from 2009 will surely be scrubbed free from this year's edition.

For one, CEO Apotheker and other top execs are no longer employed by SAP. New co-CEOs Bill McDermott and Jim Hagemann Snabe now run the show, though SAP Chairman Hasso Plattner (a.k.a. "The Codefather") seems to be pulling a lot of strings these days (even conducting his own interviews of himself).

The company has put the emphasis back on the technology, not the personal and political strife behind the scenes at the German software giant. Key words emphasized by Sapphire marketing collateral include "progress," "visionary," "inspiration" and "leadership"—words which stand in stark contrast to the 2009 conference's underlying themes.

No doubt, SAP took several body blows during 2009. But it didn't get knocked out. How the new regime responds to customers, the competition and its passionate-yet-somewhat-restrained community base will be interesting to witness at Sapphire. It should be noted that SAP's new and lofty corporate ambition is to achieve 1 billion SAP users by 2014; the number now stands at approximately 12 million.

Reading the tea leaves, one gets a sense that SAP customers are looking for something to get excited about this year—for SAP to sing Carlos Santana's "Oye Como Va" and show them something unique and innovative behind the curtain. (Santana is Wednesday night's musical act.)

What's the enterprise software equivalent of an iPad unveiling? How about a splashy acquisition? A new app that blows everyone away? Customers are clamoring for a game-changing, market-moving product announcement—not more yawn-inducing presentations from Valero Energy and Colgate-Palmolive.

On tap will be copious mentions of cloud computing. Plattner's pet "in memory database" initiative will get some prime time, as well as SAP's latest BI innovations and sustainability efforts. And we're bound to hear a lot on the "sort of but not really" generally available Business ByDesign.

If SAP's last big get-together in December 2009 is any indication, the term ERP will be persona non grata at Sapphire. It's my contention that SAP has been on a mission to distance itself from the legacy implications of ERP and all of its baggage. One of the few instances that I heard it spoken at the Influencer Summit 09 conference was this time: "We are no longer just an ERP company," said SAP board member John Schwarz, another top executive who's no longer with the company.

Change will most certainly be on display in Orlando—new faces, new rhetoric, new strategies. But will SAP customers come away from the event feeling genuinely excited about the vendor's future? Or will they be thinking "same SAP, different day"?

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