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SAP Adds Rich-Client Interface, Upping Stakes With Oracle

Macromedia's user interface and development environment will let SAP provide more tools to extract and work with information from its apps.

SAP is stepping up the competition with Oracle by giving its customers more tools to extract information from SAP applications and let users work with it.

SAP has licensed Macromedia Inc.'s Flex set of user-interface components and development environment that lets a non-Java programmer build dashboards or other forms of a user interface to exploit SAP application information. SAP offers Visual Composer, which builds user interfaces using Java Server Pages. It will add Flex to Visual Composer later this year, making it easier to generate pie charts and bar graphs of application data, drill down into a particular data set, and get up-to-the-minute data using a visual drag-and-drop development environment, an SAP spokesman says.

SAP application data is used by about a quarter of the employees at businesses where the company's software is installed. By making its application data accessible through a Flex user interface, SAP hopes to double that percentage at many customer sites, the spokesman says.

"They're driving for more users in the customer base," which will increase SAP's revenue, says Gary Hein, an analyst at the Burton Group. The type of interface that Flex represents often is referred to as a "rich client," because it can present many tasks on a single Web page and load fresh data into an existing grid without needing to download another page.

"It's a savvy move on SAP's part, Hein says. "I expect IBM, Oracle, and BEA Systems to add rich-client presentation to their application servers."

SAP has been stepping up its willingness to compete on technology with Oracle since that company's chairman, Larry Ellison, singled SAP out as his target after the acquisition of PeopleSoft. SAP bid against Oracle for retail application supplier Retek Inc. in February and March, eventually backing off the bidding war but not before the price for Retek shares had been driven from $8.50 to $11.25.

Macromedia's Flex user interfaces are built on top of a Macromedia scripting language, ActionScript, and a version of XML for formatting user-interface presentations, called MXML. Both are proprietary but are publicly documented, Hein says. ActionScript closely follows the public standard for EcmaScript, and MXML "is open and well documented," he says.

Another rich-client vendor, Laszlo Systems Inc., follows the same standards and is able to offer its own user interface running in the Macromedia Flash player as Flex does. Macromedia's Flash is the nearly ubiquitous runtime environment used to run action figures in a browser window. As Flash and Web applications mature, it has become a staging ground for more sophisticated application functions to be incorporated into Web pages, such as under-the-covers data retrieval and updating or expanding the part of an application that a user is focused on without downloading a new page.

Macromedia launched Flex a year ago and has 300 customers for the rich-client technology, says Jeff Whatcott, VP of product management. It includes the ability to build workflow processes into a Web application, dashboards for key business-performance indicators, and automated connections to databases and other back-end systems to help users complete tasks.

Salesforce.com Inc., the online customer-relationship-management application vendor, pioneered the use of a rich-client interface on a major application suite last year when it added one supplied by Dream Factory Software Inc. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff says Dream Factory's ability to give the appearance of a customized application to online CRM software has been a factor in Salesforce's success.

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