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SAP seeks to shed "ugly" label with CRM 2007

SAP has revamped its user interface with its latest CRM release as it tries to keep up with Microsoft and in the usability race.

BOSTON -- SAP today released the latest version of its CRM product, an effort to shed its reputation as an ugly, difficult-to-use application.

The latest enhancements are based largely on customer feedback, according to Bob Stutz, senior vice president and general manager, CRM global strategy and product development with SAP.

"The feedback I got … was pretty brutal," Stutz told a gathering at SAP's annual analyst event being held here this week. "[Customers said it's] just too hard to use. It's got good, deep functionality, but it's difficult to get up and running."

SAP CRM 2007 adds new Web 2.0 features, extending the usability of the system, a major theme with 2006s, SAP's last release. The new version includes widgets for salespeople's home pages, such as a drag-and-drop local weather forecast module, Google search bars and favorite reports. @45426

"It's not the big things, it's the little things we've done across the application to make it more accessible, more useful and more compatible for the user," said Mike de la Cruz, senior vice president for SAP CRM solutions.

SAP joins Oracle in bringing Web 2.0-type functionality to its user interface. Oracle previewed some of its upcoming CRM and Web 2.0 features at OpenWorld last month. The difference with SAP's latest release is that the features are available now, said Ed Thompson, analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. SAP CRM 2007 brings SAP close to and Microsoft in the usability race, a development likely to play better in SAP's existing customer base than the wider CRM market.

"They've pulled themselves from way, way behind to even," Thompson said. "It's not really going to change the minds of the open market, but we know already if you put this in front of an SAP customer -- someone who's used SAP in the past -- they go, 'Wow!' "

That was essentially the reaction of Daryl Ganas, director of sales and marketing operations for Intel, a major SAP customer and partner, which helped test the new user interface.

"I remember, the first time I saw it -- I got it," Ganas said. "It looked like the way I worked as a salesperson."

Intel's experience was emblematic of many SAP CRM customers. SAP, widely acknowledged as the CRM market leader based on licenses sold, has for years faced criticism that many of those licenses were bundled together with ERP software and have been left unused for years.

"We wouldn't have gone with SAP four years ago," Ganas said. "[Three years ago] we did and had a little success. Today we have marketing sales and some other things. We don't implement things for SAP. We implement things for our users."

However, SAP CRM 2007 is not purely a pretty interface, executives insist. It also has in-line edits that allow a user to bring up the account and account summary page -- everything they need to know -- all on one page, Stutz said. SAP has also put a lot of effort into its marketing functionality.

"We've done a lot of work with Marketing Distribution Funds and Trade Funds Promotion [TFP]," he said. "I think we've finally built the nirvana of TFP that goes from front end to back end and back again."

While some of the Google-like widgets and a demo of SAP Mobile Sales on the iPhone are likely to grab market attention, features like the ability to easily change and rename fields, reconfigure screen roles and apply an XML template to user types will provide better business value, according to Gartner's Thompson.

"Two things users always talked about with SAP were [that] it's ugly and it's clunky," he said. "This has got around ugly and around clunky, and clunky is really more important. With a new Web service, you can pull in ERP data, and it takes about 10 minutes to do that. If you think about what it used to take, you'd have had developers in there for months. This sets them in pretty good position."

SAP CRM 2007 will be available to customers this month. Its next version, CRM 7.0, will serve as the "stable core," and customers will be able to follow SAP's enhancement packages program after that, allowing them to add functionality without a major upgrade.

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