SAP applications to get overdue Web facelift

SAP applications to get overdue Web facelift

SAP's enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, which for the most part are as gray and boxy as The Wall Street Journal's pages, are getting a much-needed Web-style makeover with simpler navigation, colour, and even 3-D illusions.

New, more attractive interfaces for SAP's widely used ERP suite R/3 will be showcased this week at the company's research lab in Palo Alto, California. Revamping interfaces is one way SAP is trying to rejuvenate sales for its massive ERP suite, which have slowed down lately.

EnjoySAP, the name for the new front ends for the company's ERP modules, will comprise Release 4.6 of R/3, due out later this year, sources close to the company said.

"[Release] 4.6 is a quantum leap ... in usability. It will make it much easier to roll out SAP," said Rick Wright, SAP project manager at Sony, in San Jose, California.

At Sony, which is mostly using Release 3.1 of R/3, some nontechnical users find the current interface so awkward that they refuse to work with it directly, Wright said. For example, users will extract financial figures from R/3 into an Excel spreadsheet and analyse the data in Excel, rather than working in R/3 directly.

Among the improvements coming with EnjoySAP is the capability to offer different interfaces for different types of users -- from sales representatives, to database administrators, to executives who want an overall view of the company's progress, according to material on SAP's Web site.

"My impression is that [EnjoySAP] is a big improvement," said Rick Bangs, team leader for the SAP sales and distribution module at Bridgestone/Firestone, in Nashville, Tennessee. "They've come a long way."

The current interface for R/3's 3.x and 4.0 releases, which most users have, is "functional -- perhaps not as efficient as it could be ... but I would give it a `B.' The EnjoySAP [interface] looks like at least an `A minus,' if not an `A,'" Bangs added.

The overall look is very much like a Web site, with frames that each user can personalize, a la My.Yahoo, Bangs said.

Perking up the frames will be animations and 3-D illusions, courtesy of Engineering Animation (EAI), in Ames, Iowa, one of SAP's partners. This technology will be especially prominent in SAP's product-design and modeling applications, and will also crop up throughout the whole range of interfaces, according to Jeff Trom, vice president at EAI.

"This will be one piece of the puzzle," Trom said.

SAP itself admits that the existing interfaces are not crowd pleasers.

CEO and co-founder Hasso Plattner launched the umbrella EnjoySAP initiative in fall 1998, and he confessed that his company's widely used business applications, including the R/3 suite, are difficult to use.

Analysts said the Enjoy products should help both users and SAP.

"They will certainly make the user's life easier, and therefore their IT organisation's [lives]," said Jim Shepherd, vice president of research at AMR Research, in Boston, who is familiar with the EnjoySAP initiative.

EnjoySAP will also help broaden the market for SAP -- which, like other ERP companies has seen its revenues slack off in the last few quarters, said John Bermudez, an analyst at AMR.

Pictures and descriptions of the EnjoySAP project have been available on the SAP Web site for some time; however, company officials would not comment on them.

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