SAP Hybris: Going Beyond Packaged Software

The theme of the SAP Hybris Americas Summit 2016, said SVP and GM for North America John Gurksi, is to “go beyond,” and sure enough that was the summit’s main title or tag line. But going beyond is easier when you know where you are to begin with. SAP Hybris is in an interesting and competitive place, and it has some uncannily bold predictions to make about the technologies which will support the digital marketing of the future.

You just need to do a bit of digging to find out precisely where the brand is taking business software, while keeping an eye out for the elephants in the room. But more about them later.

The Vision Thing 

The summit seemed to cling to the edge of a battered continent, held in a warm but wind-buffeted resort on the South Florida coast, still stormy a few days after Hurricane Matthew had passed through the general vicinity. Over a few days, I felt buffeted too by the number of ways in which SAP Hybris executives sought to define a single focus for the brand created in 2013 when the German software giant SAP SE acquired the multi-channel eCommerce brand Hybris.

“It’s the most complete portfolio for the front office today,” said Brian Walker, Chief Strategy Officer, in his keynote. In a meeting with press and analysts, he talked about “simplification and transformation,” and in response to my request for clarification said: “There are a range of capability areas and a range of new solutions we’re bringing to market, but there’s an opportunity help simplify through better unification, integration across the suit, and optimization across the portfolio.”

Everyone was quick to emphasize that SAP Hybris had moved beyond the traditional commerce stamping ground. “Hybris is not just an eCommerce tool,” said SVP/CMO Jamie Anderson. “We started three years ago with just commerce,” echoed SVP for Strategic Alliances Patrick Finn. “We’ve gone beyond that now with service, sales, marketing and billing.” Walker had shown a graphic illustrating the SAP Hybris approach, with experience management (“not just digital”) as the top layer; beneath that, a strip of capabilities in commerce, marketing, billing, service and sales; a foundation of data management; and at the bottom of heap, platform and infrastructure and integration.

All well and good, and relatively clear. But is SAP Hybris, then, a mix of marketing suite, commerce suite, data management platform, customer support solution…? What, I asked Anderson, is its number one pitch to customers? Anderson told me the brand has a “clear vision,” but agreed it maybe needed “more frequent articulation.”  And the vision is? “An entirely customer-focused front office.” But again, there was a twist.

“Salesforce,” he said (one of the few times I heard one of the elephants referred to by name), “still fails to recognize that the customer experience goes deeper than the front office. It doesn’t end when they hang up or check out—there’s a fulfillment part, What separates great brands is that they keep customer promises.” Hence the integration of commerce and marketing with billing, customer support, and so on. Indeed, Walker had said, while people spend a lot of time talking about personalization, in providing solutions for product and inventory, SAP Hybris was uniquely qualified.” Customer-focused, then, because comprehensive—not just a tool for marketing and sales. I felt I was getting somewhere,

Elephants in the Room

But of course the other big beasts in the space (just to keep it zoological)—Adobe, Oracle, Salesforce—are no longer just marketing clouds themselves. Adobe talks of “customer experience management,” and Salesforce of the “customer success platform” spread across a series of clouds (marketing, sales, service, data, etc.). I was looking for differentiation.

I first found points of apparent convergence with Salesforce, and some raw nerves seemed to have been touched. On artificial intelligence and machine learning: “(They have) been very buzzy, led by our key competitor.” said Walker. “You can call it ML, but it’s not new. It’s something we’ve been investing in for a long time.”

“If you take AI at the conceptual level,” Anderson said to me, “it’s been around 30 years—the use of the term has become nebulous. To package it and say there’s this great new thing available which solves everything for everyone is false.” Similarly, in his presentation to press and analysts: “We have AI and ML built into platform, combining explicit CRM data with physical and digital behaviors and context.” In terms of the customer, the point is to: “Understand him in the context of his individual situation.” 

Likewise, when it came to Salesforce’s recent purchase of DMP Krux, “the SAP Hybris Marketing platform handles data primarily,” said Walker. It’s not handling data through a third party acquisition, was the implication, raising questions about integration and “reliability.” Customer data can be driven into SAP Hybris Profile which can aggregate not only CRM records and third party data, but also customer “trends and affinities” detected in real time, to build a dynamic, constantly evolving customer profile graph. Anderson pointed out to me that 70 percent of the world’s transactions touch a SAP system at some point. It’s a “universe” of data rather than a “galaxy” he said.

One way in which SAP Hybris differentiates itself from Salesforce is that, like Oracle, it’s not a pure-play cloud vendor. It still markets and supports on premise solutions, and indeed it will sell its services as standalone point solutions, even as it promotes the merits of integration across the portfolio. According to Walker, the brand saw about 40 percent growth last year, mainly through cloud products while on prem remained stable: So that’s a point of differentiation SAP Hybris is seeking to maintain.

Another differentiator Hybris promotes is the relative openness of its eco-system. Not only are individual solutions available to embed in tech stacks and integrate with solutions from other providers: An open approach characterizes what is perhaps the most distinctive element of the SAP Hybris offering, YaaS.

The Secret Weapon 

As long-time readers might recall, YaaS stands for Hybris-as-a-Service, the “Y” representing the reverse letter “y” of the Hybris logo. Nomenclature aside, YaaS is—as Walker put it—”an open microservices architecture.” It also offers a development platform, open to all, with no proprietary development language or environment (“Our competitor’s cloud platforms are very proprietary,” Walked claimed).

Okay, but apps on demand from the cloud? This is differentiating?  Not apps—Microservices: SAP Hybris’ “secret weapon,” said YaaS SVP Stefan Schmidt to a press and analyst group. And that formed the basis of the most dramatic claim I heard all week. Schmidt’s predicting “the complete decomposition of packaged software whether hosted in the cloud or on prem.” In Schmidt’s terms, “packaged software” includes not only purchased from vendors and installed on in-house servers, but also finalized and fully tuned apps accessed via the cloud. Those days, he seemed to be saying, will soon be over.

When I sat down with Schmidt, I read that quote back to him. He doubled down. “The cloud,” he said, “has facilitated this decomposition. I look at what’s happening around me—small companies, start-ups; the amount of investment needed to build a tech company is dramatically low. I look at the sheer amount of APIs and new services. Value lies not in packaged software, but in the architecture or system to coordinate all those APIs.” What’s more, “companies don’t want to buy packaged software any more. They want to use what’s already there—or build something very specific to their own needs.”

I needed more clarity on what YaaS is offering as an alternative. “For Hybris software users,” he said, “we can deliver services independent of bigger apps or updates.” These services—or microservices—are indeed apps in a sense, just not what we normally think of as apps. “An app,” Schmidt explained, “is an aggregation of microservices with a user interface.” In other words, when we download an app to a smartphone—a calendar app, say, or a news or weather app—we see a finished package with a more-or-less user friendly interface: What’s happening behind the scenes, to make the app function, is the functioning of a series of smaller components communicating with each other. The app as we know it is essentially a user-friendly “window” on the functioning of microservices. 

Microservices—which don’t necessarily need to be part of an app—communicate with each other on a network. The aim, Schmidt said, was to monetize the network itself rather than the components. Indeed, he sees microservices as eminently disposable. Unlike a business app, which requires some commitment, it’s easy and cheap to fail with microservices, discard them, and integrate new ones. CMO Anderson had told me that he envisages “a move away from monolithic app systems in general.” An architecture permitting the embedding of microservices in an existing app system would mean “moving faster” and ultimately “a new payment system.” (Schmidt explained that purchasing microservices is very much like purchasing apps from an app store.)

I still had some questions. If microservices were so quick and easy to build and distribute, won’t everyone be doing it? What’s the value to SAP? “SAP branding will play a big role,” Schmidt said. “There’s trust. We know how to protect enterprise data.” And in any case, “monetization will come not so much from the software but from data and from the functionality of the eco-system.” Indeed, the promise is that—although it’s “not a walled garden”—for SAP Hybris software users, there will be fast delivery of microservices independent of apps and updates, with easy integration. “That’s where we’re going with this,” affirmed Schmidt, “continually streaming products and services.” More like streaming a playlist from the cloud than downloading albums.

Conceptually this all makes a lot of sense. Educating business teams on the merits of a microservice architecture may be more of a challenge. But it does “go beyond” the existing architecture of the technology which supports digital marketing.  And the elephants in the room haven’t seized and rebranded it—yet.

–SAP Hybris covered DMNTech’s expenses to attend the summit

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