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The Real Mobile Opportunity for SAP and Sybase

by Joshua Greenbaum | insiderPROFILES

April 1, 2011

When people think of mobile opportunities, they tend to think of the mobile phone applications in the Apple Store — and Apple’s revenues from those apps. But all that actually pales in comparison to what will be possible when SAP and Sybase start focusing on the real mobile opportunity — which starts with embedded sensor capability.

What are SAP’s chances of making a big play in the mobile phone market? The pundits have been pontificating on this point ever since SAP’s acquisition of Sybase last year. This change has engendered no small amount of speculation about how SAP will soon become a powerhouse in the mobility space, and the tension is building: Executives have been speechifying, presentations have been flying, and cool demos with iPads and the latest Android phones are drumming up visions of SAP/Sybase in the rarified limelight that Apple and Google have lately been enjoying.

Pardon me while I stifle a yawn. Call it boredom mixed with disbelief and disinterest — or simply impatience with a wonderful but irrelevant fantasy — but the yawning happens every time I think of SAP/Sybase challenging Apple and Google as a powerhouse in the mobile phone applications market.

However, when I think about SAP/Sybase commanding the rest of the mobility market, then I’m wide awake. That’s because the mobile phone applications in the Apple Store — and Apple’s revenues from those apps — actually pale in comparison to what will be possible when SAP and Sybase start focusing on the real mobile opportunity.

Embedded Sensors Deliver Key Data for Analysis

A key part of that opportunity is sensor capability. Out of the billions of mobile phones on the market today — an explosion that is nothing to yawn at — only a few hundred million of those phones have presence detectors, accelerometers, and other sensors. But in the next 10 years, over 40 billion embedded microprocessors will be sold, with over eight billion sensors expected to be in the market by 2014.1

Why is this important? Virtually every one of those embedded microprocessors and sensors will be sitting inside an electronic device, desperate to fulfill two of its three fundamental imperatives: accumulate lots of data, and transmit that data to some other device. The third imperative, which lies outside of the device itself, is perhaps the most important: contribute key data, direct from its specific point of origin, to be used to monitor, analyze, and act on an important, data-driven process.

And we’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill, 20th-century data points or processes here. Modern sensors can detect, measure, and digitize air flow, atmospheric pressure, sound, temperature, humidity, and the presence of specific chemicals or biological markers, as well as offer the more familiar vibration, tilt, rotation, and location capabilities that we already see in gaming devices and mobile phones.

Mobility Solutions for More Seamless Transportation

The key data that these sensors contribute can now inform valuable processes. For example, suppose you’re a manufacturer making automobile windshields for a just-in-time manufacturing customer, and your best-cost shipping option is by rail. One problem with shipping fragile goods by railroad is “truck hunting,” which refers to the tendency of rail cars (or trucks, in the parlance) to be susceptible to vigorous side-by-side shaking (or hunting) due to imperfections in the track.

Imagine if you could install, on that pallet of windshields, a sensor that could detect vibration, tilt, and rotation, and even calculate the gravitational forces at play inside that “truck.” Now, envision that the g-force is so great that the glass starts to shatter — at which point that sensor could blend in location data from an on-board GPS device, link up to a satellite, and transmit an alert that includes a unique ID for that pallet.

Back in the office, your SAP system could take that pallet ID, location information, and g-force data, and determine which job at which plant is now in jeopardy, and by what time factor (based on how far the pallet is from the plant). An analytical application could then determine whether to air-freight the new windshields or divert a pallet from some other job, depending on your contract with the plant, your logistics partners, and your expected profit margins. The result is that you have a way to meet your service level agreements, maybe still turn a profit on the deal, and help your customer’s plant stay in line. Plus, you have some great documentation for an insurance claim against the railroad if the time comes.

Now that’s an enterprise mobility solution I could get excited about.

Optimizing Capital Expenses with RFID

If that example doesn’t impress you, consider this one: A typical regional hospital may have several hundred infusion pumps floating around the facility. Large hospitals may have thousands. With the average cost at $3,000 per machine, even a small hospital with a few hundred beds may own hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of this valuable equipment. Of course, the equipment is only valuable if it’s in good working order and in the right place at the right time.

If only it were a simple task to keep an accurate record of such an immense amount of inventory. Hospitals lose track of these machines all the time, endangering patient health and their operations’ efficiency. A study of a small regional hospital in the Netherlands showed that 20% of the hospital’s approximately 100 pumps were not in use due to being lost or in need of maintenance.2 That’s a decent amount of capital that is inaccessible for use at any given time.

Imagine if, on each pump, you could stick a Class 3 RFID tag, which can be read through walls and over great distances, providing location information for the pump. An RFID reader could transmit data to an asset management module that would help determine which pumps are available and which  ones are not. In theory, the hospital could then better optimize its capital expenses and pump usage and also provide a better level of care.

To take it even further, you could turn the pump into a mobile device that can transmit data from a bar code reader to confirm the status (such as “in use,” “in maintenance,” or “in need of maintenance”) and the real-time infusion rate, as well as confirm that the medication in the pump matches the patient’s prescription.

But that’s just the tip of the opportunity’s iceberg: I’ve highlighted merely a sample of functions that you don’t find in an iPhone app or a Google phone app, but that the SAP/Sybase marriage can potentially bring to enterprise mobility.

The Future of Mobility

These real-world examples illustrate the real future of the Sybase acquisition, one that unites SAP’s analytics and back-office functionality with a wide range of compelling enterprise-class business cases for mobility. I’m sure getting a slice of the revenue stream from mobile games and other consumer applications for mobile phones is a worthy objective, and I bet everyone wishes their company could be as cool as Apple or Google. But for SAP, Sybase, and the enterprise mobility market, there’s a much more interesting and exciting set of games to be played — games that are guaranteed to keep me awake and paying attention for some time to come.

1 Source: Artemis, a European union research organization, and iSuppli, a market research firm owned by IHS. [back]

2 Source: Benjamin P. H. Kemper, Mariel Koopmans, and Ronald J. M. M. Does; “Quality Quandaries: The Availability of Infusion Pumps in a Hospital”; Quality Engineering; 21(4): 471-477; 2009. [back]

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