Enterprise application vendors are poised to add unified communications capabilities such as presence to their products this year.
Henry Dewing, principal analyst with Forrester Research, said that SAP and Oracle – with their PeopleSoft and Siebel product lines – could be "lighting up" their products in 2008 with presence technology, such as click-to-call and click-to-IM interfaces.
Dewing said SAP has already taken a step in this direction with partnerships with IBM and Microsoft. SAP has been working to integrate its enterprise applications with Microsoft Outlook via a product called Duet and with IBM's Lotus Notes via a new project code-named Atlantic. This integration allows the average desk worker to access SAP features and functions without having to log into SAP.
Byron Banks, senior director of information worker marketing at SAP, said his company wants end users to interact with SAP software via an interface that they are familiar with. With Atlantic and Duet, transactions that normally take place in an SAP interface can instead be executed in other applications with which end users are more comfortable. For instance, an end user could request a vacation by blocking out the time in his Outlook calendar. This action would trigger a leave request that would be routed through the company's systems using all the rules within the SAP application. Managers could approve or reject the request much as they would a meeting request in Outlook.
"If the users spend all their time dealing with their email, their calendar, working with Word or with spreadsheets, then whenever they need critical enterprise data, they should be able to get it without having to leave that interface," Banks said. "If they see a purchase request for approval coming into their inbox, they can accept it. But if they have a question about that request, they can pick up a phone and call someone."
Dewing said the next step is to integrate presence into these interfaces, much as applications are integrated as services in service-oriented architectures. "Presence is really a service," he said. "So you build a widget inside your application that takes advantage of that service that is out on the network."
Banks agreed that the next logical step for SAP's integration with IBM and Microsoft is presence.
"Once you're in that Outlook environment and Lotus Notes environment," he said, "then the ability to extend beyond that and integrate into unified communications, whether through IBM SameTime or Microsoft Messenger, is definitely something that we see as very important."
Duet 1.5, the next version of SAP's Microsoft Outlook integration, will feature presence technology when it is released in June, Banks said. He envisions similar functionality for his company's Atlantic product, which should be available at the end of the year.
"In SAP, we're going down a path of trying to empower users, and unified communications is definitely one piece of that," he said. "So with Duet 1.5 we will be shipping a fully baked product some time in the middle of this year that will have presence enablement in it. I'll be honest, we're putting it out with presence to get the technology out there, to get some initial feedback and over time continue to extend and add new features."
So what will this presence look like? Dewing said a call center agent at an insurance company might receive a call from someone who wants to insure a diamond ring. The agent collects basic information about the potential customer and enters it into an SAP-based insurance underwriting application. Through a presence client integrated with the application, the call center agent will then be able to see a list of the company's insurance underwriters.
"Inside your underwriting application you see a list of eight people, and one of them has a green button next to their name, so you click there," he said.
Then through an immediate instant messaging session or a phone call, the agent goes over the basics of the prospect with the underwriter to determine whether the company will insure the ring.
"You get back a real-time answer -- yes or no," Dewing said. "To the business, it looks like an incremental improvement in business process speed. To the customer, it looks like a whole new process. Instead of sending your stuff in and waiting three weeks for the insurance company to come back to you and say you're covered, you get it done in one call. That's all because you exposed the presence of the people who are able to say yea or nay on underwriting inside your underwriting application."
With SAP moving toward unified communications, Dewing said, competitors such as Oracle will inevitably follow. "I would assume the others would follow," he said. "But I'm not aware of any specific activity going on at this time."