GRC
HR
SCM
CRM
BI


Article

 

Setting a Browser and UI Strategy: SAP's Response to Changing UI Technology

by Franz J. Fritz | SAPinsider

October 1, 2005

by Franz J. Fritz, SAP AG SAPinsider - 2005 (Volume 6), October (Issue 4)
 



Franz J. Fritz,
SAP AG

 

In the ever-changing Web browser marketplace, the de facto standard of a few years ago is no longer the front-runner, and with new technologyon the rise, companies are revisiting their browser strategies. With this in mind, SAP customers have generated a lot of questions regarding UIs and browsers, such as:

  • Which browsers does SAP support?

  • Should we standardize on anyparticular browser?

  • When should we use a browser client versus a locally installed client?

  • Which SAP rendering technologies should we rely on to support our UI strategies?

This article provides insight into SAP's strategy for user interfaces and browsers, including why the focus is on Web Dynpro and SAP NetWeaver Portal (formerly SAP Enterprise Portal), and why other UI technologies will become less relevant over time. We'll also look at why SAP is concentrating its efforts on the two major players in the browser arena, and what this means for support for SAP customer installations.

SAP's UI Strategy: Web Dynpro

To help mediate the cost of maintaining and modifying UIs, SAP has devoted extensive resources to developing improved methods of creating user interfaces — hence the evolution from SAP GUI to Web Dynpro (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Evolving UI: The Path from SAP GUI to Web Dynpro
click here for a larger version of this image

Web Dynpro is SAP's development environment for creating user interfaces for business applications that would support both browsers and native GUI clients. SAP is focusing its UI efforts on Web Dynpro technology because of its particular strengths in these areas:

Web Dynpro provides UI developers with reusable graphic building blocks (controls) and navigation that enables the UI to connect with multiple backends: ABAP-based remote function calls (RFCs), Enterprise JavaBeans (EJBs), Web services, and many more.

Web Dynpro's approach minimizes manual coding and uses visual tools to design and reuse UI components. It uses a strictly model-driven UI architecture and design pattern, building on and extending the proven Model-View-Controller (MVC) paradigm, 1 to ensure a clear separation of user interfaces and backend services.

The Web Dynpro concept enables SAP customers to overcome fragmentation into various technology streams, regain platform independence, and achieve a high abstraction level.

Since, with Web Dynpro, the rendering of an application (its UI) is decoupled from the construction of the application, different client-based and server-based rendering approaches could be combined with the same application logic. This paves the way for not only multiple browser UIs, but also dedicated Windows and Java clients, and support for small mobile devices, such as Pocket PCs and RIM pagers. 2

Web Dynpro also works in close conjunction with SAP NetWeaver Portal — even more so with the release of the next version of SAP NetWeaver (2004s). SAP NetWeaver Portal provides end users with a unified entry point to all types of applications (transactional, analytic or document-centric) and leverages single sign-on (SSO), so users need not log on to multiple systems. Portal-based navigation paradigms, like the newly developed control center/work center approaches, unify the access to all applications and deliver vital information to users as quickly as possible.

The portal will still be able to integrate and aggregate Web content from any other source, including non-SAP applications and document servers. However, within the SAP NetWeaver Portal setting and framework, Web Dynpro will become the most important UI technology for SAP applications.

Smart, Local Clients Keep Coming Back: Web Dynpro's Alternative to Browser-Based UIs

From the beginning of Web Dynpro's development, separating the programming model and the rendering engines has been part of the design. So while SAP has always planned browser-based rendering for Web Dynpro, the goal was also to give customers the option of "smart" Windows and Java clients that, compared to browser-based platforms, would offer:

  • Far better performance

  • A smoother rendering experience

  • Better integration with local applications running on the desktop

This flexibility is becoming available to SAP customers. Preview versions of these Windows and Java clients for Web Dynpro are currently bundled with the most recent shipments of SAP GUI clients for Windows and Java respectively.

Some Special Cases (Or, When Not to Use Web Dynpro)

Web Dynpro is optimized for enterprise applications, but there are some UI development scenarios where it doesn't apply:

1. For example, the SAP NetWeaver Developer Studio, which bundles all developer tools into one coherent "fat client" environment, is based on Eclipse, which has recently become the de facto standard as a platform for modeling, design, and development tools.

2. Any applications that require a "pixel perfect" design. In these applications, reuse of UI building blocks is much less important than differentiating the look and feel of the interface. Think of applications that serve a large consumer community (B2C applications like Amazon) and require a strong branding component. Typical examples are Internet Sales or Biller Direct applications, which are not built with Web Dynpro but rather with JSP technology. These applications often must support a huge number of anonymous users, which calls for a pure stateless programming model, or require that they run on as many browsers as possible, which means that model abstraction must be sacrificed for the browser-specific coding that is required.

3. Very low-level administration tools, particularly those that must work within a barebones system environment where it cannot be assumed that an enterprise portal is already up and running. (However, looking ahead, normal day-to-day administration tasks will be well supported by SAP NetWeaver Administrator, a new generation of admin UIs built on top of the SAP NetWeaver Portal and Web Dynpro. The first pieces of these UIs have already been shipped with SAP NetWeaver 2004.)

How to Keep UIs Consistent: Unified Rendering

How can SAP handle the wide variety of UI technologies? And how can we make them compatible from the user's point of view?

At SAP, we developed common design principles for the various UI technologies, a set of design rules for the look and feel of UI building blocks, governance processes for the available set of controls, standard rules for how to customize and brand user interfaces with style sheets, and more. Together, these activities are referred to as Unified Rendering.

Unified Rendering definitions have become the basis for all important browser-based user interfaces that are currently delivered by SAP, from the ITS-based HTML GUI, via HTML Business-based Portal UIs, to the newest versions of Business Server Pages, and, in particular, Web Dynpro (see Figure 2). These design principles are the foundation for UIs that can achieve both rich features and higher levels of abstraction.

Figure 2
User Interface Programming Models

What's the Impact of Web Dynpro on SAP's Browser Strategy?

The short answer is this: Since only the newest browsers have sufficient richness and maturity to support Web Dynpro applications like SAP Employee Self-Service (ESS), SAP centers its browser strategy on the current releases of Microsoft Internet Explorer and Firefox — that means Internet Explorer 6.0 and Firefox 1.0. To understand why, let's take a look at the browser market.

Several years ago, Microsoft Internet Explorer was crowned the winner of the browser war and has dominated the market ever since.3 However, there remains room for alternatives. In recent years, Mozilla has garnered increasing attention, taking market share away from Internet Explorer. The Firefox browser, a Mozilla offspring, is the fastest-growing browser in the market. 4 At least one other browser has acknowledged the strength of its two major competitors. Netscape has announced that its 8.0 version will support the Firefox engine, as well as the Internet Explorer rendering engine.

SAP's response is to focus on recent versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox as reference browsers for the development, testing, and validation of its products. By shifting the focus to these two browsers, SAP is moving away from older Netscape versions (6.x/7.x) that were simply unable to cope with the requirements in terms of functionality and technical support.

Customers can continue to use the newer versions of the Mozilla and Netscape browsers — as long as they use the same engine and are compatible with Firefox. However, SAP will only test and fix bugs against Internet Explorer and Firefox. Figure 3 shows how SAP sorts it all out for a more unified browser support strategy.

SAP NetWeaver 2004s Browser Support for End User and Administrator Functionality
Browser
Internet Explorer 6
Firefox 1.0
Netscape 7.x
Rendering technology
Windows 2000,
Windows XP
(including SP2)
Windows 2000,
Windows XP
(including SP2),
Linux Red Hat,
Fedora core 2,
Linux SUSE PE,
Mac OS X
Windows 2000,
Windows XP
Main UI
technologies
Web Dynpro  
SAP NetWeaver Portal*
HTMLB end users
 
BSP (Design 2003**)
BI (BEx Web)  
HTML GUI
(integrated ITS)
 
SAP EP 6.0 special functions Portal administrator    
Real-time collaboration    
Adobe Interactive Forms
***  

Legend

Supported
Platform combination not supported
Platform combination deprecated, no longer tested
* Except "SAP EP 6.0 special functions" as noted in matrix
** Older BSP designs are deprecated
*** Not for Mac OS X

Please note

  • This matrix shows generic SAP NetWeaver support only and does not make statements about browser support in specific applications.

  • Browsers based on Firefox 1.0 engine will be supported "as is," i.e., the reference for SAP support is Firefox 1.0 only.

  • Client platforms are supported in 32-bit mode only.

  • Netscape 6.x/7.x is only supported "as is" for older functionality, but will not be tested anymore.

  • Internet Explorer 5.5 is deprecated and will no longer be tested by SAP.
This matrix represents current planning for SAP NetWeaver only, not for the SAP products using SAP NetWeaver, and can be subject to additional changes without further notice.
Figure 3
Browser Support for SAP End Users and Administrators

Note that Figure 3 lists current browser support for the most important SAP NetWeaver technologies and user roles (both end user and administrator). When it comes to SAP applications in general, and for business packages sitting on top of SAP NetWeaver Portal, the picture is a little more complex. Consider that:

  • For all application releases, upgrades, and service packs, SAP maintains browser support as long as the infrastructure providers support the corresponding browser/OS combination.

  • Older versions of SAP applications will continue to support Netscape 6.x and 7.x as long as there is support available from Netscape.

  • Internet Explorer 5.5 is no longer supported by Microsoft (support ended in December 2003), and was never available in conjunction with Windows XP.

Web Dynpro-based applications require rich UI controls that can only be provided by users with recent versions of browsers, such as Internet Explorer 6 and Firefox 1.0. What's more, some applications — especially those with Microsoft Office integration, groupware integration, and real-time collaboration — mandate that users standardize on Internet Explorer.

What to Anticipate in SAP's Future UI Strategy

With the introduction of innovations such as XHTML and XForms, among others,5 it's apparent that change is inevitable for UI technology. This means that SAP's approach will also continue to evolve.

The Browser Evolution

W3C Standards, Java Standards, Microsoft, and More

The real breakthrough for the Internet as we know it today was the invention of hypertext markup language (HTML). All browsers support HTML, but HTML is not sophisticated enough to support everything a user interface requires to get the most out of an application. As a result, developers spliced on their own proprietary extensions to enable richer content, object embedding, scripting, and more.

As Internet Explorer has increasingly led the browser pack, Microsoft's Windows operating system and ActiveX controls became the de facto standard for developers of Web UIs requiring high interactivity. This has influenced SAP applications to some extent and will continue to remain a necessity whenever integration with Microsoft Office is required.

Recently we have seen the introduction of extensible hypertext markup language (XHTML), which is a better and more structured version of HTML that takes advantage of the XML standards and infrastructure. To date, neither Internet Explorer nor Firefox support the full specification of XHTML. Furthermore, a browser supporting XHTML would still require extensions to express the interactivity required for a good user experience.

A new and promising approach on the standards side is XForms. This World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) initiative enables richer forms and higher levels of abstraction, which will reduce the need for scripting and a clear separation of layout and data. XForms have yet to be adopted by mainstream browsers.

There are also other, more visible innovations in the UI technology arena:

  • Scalable vector graphics (SVG) as a rendering technology continues to play a more important role and has complementary strengths when compared to HTML/XHTML. For example, SAP's new model-driven design tool Visual Composer heavily relies on SVG.

  • In the Java community, JavaServer Faces has emerged as a more structured successor of JavaServer Pages (JSPs) and will likely make it into the next J2EE 5.0 version as a part of the standard.

  • The merger of Macromedia and Adobe will also push richer and more interactive user interfaces and Web content.

New UI technologies will be provided with the upcoming Microsoft Longhorn release, which also will heavily influence the overall development of user interfaces. All this is a clear indication that we have to expect more dynamics in the user interface area.

There clearly is ongoing development activity for Internet Explorer as well as Firefox, so customers can expect future changes to the browser platform "matrix" in Web Dynpro to take advantage of the evolution and progress in this area. Future releases of SAP NetWeaver will necessarily leverage advances in UI technology, which may lead to browser and UI client upgrades. Right now, however, most new browser developments seem to focus on security rather than new functionality. (Please see the "Resources" sidebar for more detail.)

You can also expect to see different approaches depending on the business use. For example, the UI strategy may be significantly different if the goal is user productivity with business-to-employee (B2E) applications rather than maximal reach and broadest browser support with B2C applications. At the same time, SAP continues to explore more uniform UI technology across all applications, taking into consideration any tradeoffs when it comes to compatibility requirements.

However, for those SAP customers revisiting their browser and UI strategy now, it's encouraging that with the Web Dynpro model, SAP strikes an appropriate balance between high abstraction and richness of user experience. New applications will be built with Web Dynpro, and old user interfaces will gradually be replaced by interfaces constructed using Web Dynpro, depending on customer priorities and technical constraints.

For more information on SAP platform support, as well as information on various browsers, please see "Resources" sidebar.

Resources

For more information, please visit these sites:

SAP Platform Support and Product Availability Matrix (PAM)
http://service.sap.com/platforms
http://service.sap.com/PAM
www.sdn.sap.com/sdn/developerareas/webdynpro.sdn?node=linkDnode6-2

Firefox
www.mozilla.org/projects/firefox/roadmap.html
www.mozilla.org/releases/

Netscape
http://browser.netscape.com/ns8/support/relnotes.jsp

Internet Explorer 7.0
http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9588_22-5577263.html


1 - For more on the MVC paradigm, please see Karl Kessler's article "Faster Development and Greater Flexibility for Your Web Applications?" in the October-December 2002 issue of SAP Insider (www.SAPinsider.com).

2 - Of course, the special nature and form factor of these devices still needs suitably designed applications, but this means one less roadblock for developing such applications.

3 - Netscape continues to fade, Apple's Safari browser remains a niche product, and Opera holds on to a very small market share.

4 - Mozilla recently announced that all of its development efforts will be poured into Firefox, and that the Mozilla browser will stabilize at the 1.7.x version.

5 - For more on innovations in browser and UI technology, see the sidebar "The Browser Evolution: W3C Standards, Java Standards, Microsoft, and More."


Franz J. Fritz has a Ph.D. in mathematics and 30 years of experience in all areas of IT. Workflow and business process management have been particular areas of interest for much of his life. He has worked at SAP since 1993 as Program Director and Vice President with responsibility for the Business Process Technology and Internet-Business Framework departments. Since 2003, he has been responsible for several areas within SAP NetWeaver Product Management.

An email has been sent to:






More from SAPinsider



COMMENTS

Please log in to post a comment.

No comments have been submitted on this article. Be the first to comment!


SAPinsider
FAQ