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A mobile future for SAP user interfaces?

I have worked with SAP technologies since the mid 1990s (unfortunately, I wasn’t able to experience the delights of R/2 like some of my colleagues).

As a SAP developer, I have tracked broadly the major innovations in UI technologies SAP has delivered to us over the years.  Let’s list some (not all) of them ….

–  SAPGUI (of course)

–  Internet Transaction Server

–  Business Server Pages (if only the ABAP community had embraced this!)

–  Portal Development Kit

–  Web Dynpro Java

–  Visual Composer

–  Web Dynpro ABAP

–  Interactive Forms by Adobe

–  and others (guiXT, Flash Islands, Silverlight Islands, JSF etc.)

Sadly, many developers over the past decade haven’t developed their skills further than the first option above, but that’s the topic of another blog.

SAP has over the last half decade placed heavy emphasis on Web Dynpro technology.  Why?  Because it seeks to abstract the client rendering technology so as to ‘future proof’ the UI investment.  Some people still think that Web Dynpro is simply a HTML rendering technology, but SAP’s hopes for it have been much more than that.  The intention has always been for SAP to deliver new rendering engines that will enable Web Dynpro developments to run on different UI technologies.

Now for the curve ball ….  Gartner predicts that ‘by 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common Web access device worldwide’.  Yet currently technologies like Web Dynpro ABAP are not supported on mobiles.  Web Dynpro Java is supported for a few mobile platforms, or we might find ourselves looking back at older technologies such as ITS mobile or BSP.  If the Gartner predictions are true, the potential speed of change is staggering, and probably too fast for SAP to deliver mobile clients with Web Dynpro alone.

So what has SAP done to address this?  It acquired Sybase, along with it’s mobility solution.  At the same time SAP has developed Gateway, which enables lean RESTful web services (as distinct from SOA web services) for consumption by things such as smartphones, tablets etc.  So what does this mean for the UI?

In my opinion we are seeing a new evolution and thinking by SAP towards UI.  The acquisition of Sybase to some degree addresses the platform support challenges in the mobility space (since with Sybase you can deploy to multiple mobile platforms …. similar to the promise of Web Dynpro).  The delivery of Gateway essentially exposes business logic in the form of easily consumable RESTful services for mobile (and other) developers.  This is no different to the type of APIs exposed by Facebook and Twitter (for instance), and with which smartphone developers are accustomed to.  To some extent you can see this as SAP outsourcing the UI.  And if Gartner is correct then in a few years time it is the mobile UI platform where the enterprise will be.

If you are a SAP UI developer, it is time to once again learn some new technologies (be it Sybase Unwired Platform, or HTML5 for web apps, or native Android/iPhone/iPad or other smartphone development).  We live in very interesting and exciting times. 

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  • Hi John,
    I read your note and saw plenty of “signs” in the last few months confirming this trend that SAP is joining the for mobility.
    As an SAP user I cannot wait to see major development facilitating system access and becoming less dependent on “classic” harware based PCs.
    I will certainly keep an eye on your future comments and notes.
  • Just for second, let’s ignore what Gartner predicts for 2013 & what the different technology adoption rate is amongst SAP UI Developers…

    Mobility is here right now, there will no doubt be lots of resistance to change (from UI developers & business) because of the uncertainty (job security, security etc.) it creates. There shouldn’t be a question of whether or not to adopt it, the questions should rather be centred around where & how to skill up to speed up adoption.

    2013 is a very cautious prediction from Gartner especially if you consider how exponentially something like Facebook has grown in 2 years & a large portion of the Facebook community probably only engage using mobile access. Web 2.0 is driving mobility & all Software Vendors need to ride the wave but they need to provide the right development tools (or surf board) to drive large scale enterprise mobility adoption.

  • Hi John,

    Like you post and the frustration from a developers point of view. I’m afraid we have to live we reality that this is a discussion that every software vendor has to go through (see Microsoft struggle at

    UI technology has an every lifespan of half a year whereas business application last for at least 5-10 years. Waiting for Cross platform decoupling is like waiting for open standards. They will be there sometime but will always lack behind the innovation requirement of present days.
    I’m afraid flexibility from developers is inevitable!

  • Hi john,

    I agree that mobile applications are going to take a big leap forward from now on, but I would also highlight that I’m still waiting for my Web 2.0 enterprise applications! (Web Dynpro is getting closer, but still a little too chatty for my liking)
    I’ve seen the power of technologies that have been around for a while like Google Web Toolkit that are very promising, even in the mobile space but we know these are going to be hard to get into an enterprise as a standard set of tools (and alternatively, no one wants vendor lock-in to innovative development technologies apart from ABAP).
    With web 2.0 and business dashboards, the annoying trend is we are seeing these items usually only make it into the realms of “executive” use cases.  As you know, with this year’s DemoJam idea that Al and I are doing, we’re trying to convince enterprises that the time is now, but it will still take some adventurous CxO push to get this happening regardless of whether Sybase or Gateway provide the capabilities in a simplified way.
    So thinking positive about this, you raise a good point, and I think it will happen but it will be the innovative companies that will lead the way on this and reap the rewards, and most enterprises will be still trying to work out their mobile strategy.
    On a related note, we all need to start thinking about how mobility will (or preferably should) impact our businesses.  For example, a poor use-case will kill the dream very quickly. But wouldn’t it be great to see everyone walking around in open areas or remotely (not at desks), using enterprise social media rather than email (no more email backlogs); conducting presentations on people’s tablets remotely, with integrated VOIP/Video; all while dictating notes rather than typing everything with AI note taking.  Yeah – It’s late right now so I better start dreaming in bed…

    Nice work,

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for your well considered thoughts, as always.  And yes I consciously knew that I was taking an optimistic tone in my blog.  From a developers perspective however, I think that irrespective we will need to tackle new challenges around mobility over the next decade.  This relates not just to potentially new languages, architectures, and tools, but also to different thinking around usability design (eg. for touch devices).  I know that SAP has mentioned the partnering that could happen between the ‘grey haired’ developers and the ‘long haired’ developers.  I am thinking that if current SAP developers want to work on UI development and not be consigned to the grey haired ranks, they will need to think about re-skilling.

  • SAP has been pushing mobile Travel Expense for years with little success.  Mobile devices may overtake internet access for “playing” like social networking, but I doubt it will be overtaking the back office tasks for a long while, if ever.
  • Hi John,
    thanks for the blog that is a good starting point for the discussion.
    To even better address it I would like to add the basic concepts and classifications about the “mobile” world.
    Kidding a bit, I would ask you: what do you mean with “mobile”? Are you speaking about smartphones? or tablets (e.g. iPad)? or laptops? Are you speaking about online or offline Apps?

    I think the first point is online/offline and the second the device type, third the operation system. For example I may think to an offline application that runs as native application on an tablet of type iPad. It will be different with an Samsung Galaxy and so on.

    I would also add a comment about Web Dynpro for ABAP. As you said it doesn’t support mobile scenario but and here my concern it is very close to well support the iPhone/iPad world. Some OSS notes states that WDA will support Safari from 7.02 for MacOS. That’s really a pity that iOS4 is not defined as supported. Even worst is the fact that Web Dynpro for ABAP applications work well already today from an iPhone and are very nice from an iPad. There are some issues with dropdownlistbox and other introduced by the SAP Portal itself but it seems very close to the full support. The UR Unified Rendering should be the perfect way to support new browsers and devices but in the reality it takes a long time to become reality.

    Offline, that obviously means also online with synchronization is indeed the true added value of the Sybase SUP. That’s for sure.

    • Hi Sergio, thanks for your good points.  In relation to how I would define ‘mobile’, I am personally not just thinking about smartphones, I am also including the new wave of touch tablets (eg. iPads) that we are seeing.  I am including both online and offline scenarios.  I am looking at this from a developers’ perspective (if I would want to discuss from a Mobility strategy perspective I would refer to experts like Kevin Bennedict).  One thing for me is certain, irrespective of the definition or scope of mobility …. there will be another big change in learning, skillsets and tools for SAP developers who wish to work on the user interface side of things.  I discovered this when looking at iPhone development (I have a few apps in the iTunes store).  Even the design paradigms for touch sensitive devices is very different to desktop focussed design, which Web Dynpro (and in particular Web Dynpro ABAP) is more focussed on.  That is the point of my blog … for the many developers out there to recognise and prepare for a new wave of learning (or be consigned to the ranks of the so called ‘grey haired’ developers who don’t work on the UI).
      With respect to your assessment of WDA being close, I am not sure about that.  My concern is not with supportability for Safari, but the payload involved in the WDA framework.  I have only tested this on a 7.01 system, but building a very simple ‘Hello World’ WDA results in a payload of over 450Kb to the device.  On wireless connections, this may be fine.  But when we test this on say a poor connection (eg. 56kpbs – 128kbps) it can take a minute for the screen to appear, which in usability circles is generally not acceptable.  By contrast, using an open source lean framework such as iUI (for iPhone), I have created a working example (more than simply Hello World) that results in a payload of less than 30Kb to the device.  So in my mind WDA is designed for high bandwidth connections, not mobile devices connected with potentially poor connections.  So unless 7.02 or a future release changes this dramatically, I can’t see it being useful for mobility scenarios where potentially low bandwidth connections exist.  The possibility exists in future for WDA to take advantage of HTML5 local storage features, so you could theoretically store some of the WDA framework locally after the initial download.  But what that gets back to is product development building these features into the proprietary WDA framework as fast as possible, otherwise us developers need to resort to the open source community and frameworks such as iUI, jquery etc.  It is also a complication that IE has poor support for these features, yet SAP solutions are heavily invested in IE compatibility, whereas in the mobile arena IE is currently far from dominant.
  • Hi John,
        4 months are spent from your clever blog, and your arguments are yet live and current. Gartner also continue to confirm the predictions.
    After your wonderful blogs on phonegap… do you think a way out is coming?