SAP will bring a unified interface across its suite of business applications over the next few quarters as part of an ongoing effort to make its software easier to implement,  company co-CEO Leo Apotheker has said.

"The next version of our Business Suite will have one harmonic view," said Apotheker, who joined customers and analysts at SAP's New York offices on Friday for a panel discussion on "Why it makes sense to invest in IT in lean economic times."

SAP has released a version of what Apotheker called its "unified interface," similar to the current interface in the company's CRM module, for select customers to test, according to company officials. It will most likely take several quarters to release the interface for general availability, Apotheker acknowledged.

The rollout of the unified interface is part of the company's commitment to bring its enhancement pack strategy to its entire business suite. With the rollout of enhancement packs, SAP is moving away from periodic, large upgrades and instead adding new features on an incremental basis.

Earlier this month, SAP released the fourth enhancement pack for its core ERP applications. The next releases of other applications in its suite, including supply chain management, product lifecycle management and supplier relationship management, will offer users the new unified interface and the ability to upgrade via enhancement packs, according to company officials.

"Once we get the next version of the business suite out, no more big bang upgrades," Apotheker said.

Much of the panel discussion Friday revolved around whether software can provide a strategic advantage, now that virtually every major business has incorporated software into day-to-day operations.

Not surprisingly, the SAP-selected panel agreed that companies can differentiate themselves with IT even when they use the same software platform.

"If you gave two inventors access to two identical factories, would they implement their ideas in an identical way? No, of course not," said Andrew McAfee, a Harvard Business School professor and author of "Investing in the IT That Makes a Competitive Difference."

"Good business ideas on top of the infrastructure ... makes a difference," McAfee said.

ERP is especially crucial in tough economic times, Apotheker said. It's hard to increase revenue in a recession, so companies need to streamline business processes to bolster their bottom line.

"Trying to make a higher top line is going to be very difficult, so you have to create efficiencies," Apotheker said.

SAP scrapped its 2009 financial forecast a few weeks ago after the collapse of the Wall Street investment banks, and Apotheker declined to give guidance on financial results for the current quarter. SAP will talk more about financial results in January, he said.

Meanwhile, one customer said she was looking forward to the unified interface as a way of increasing user efficiency. "We have all sorts of people using SAP - administrators, business people, nurses," said Naomi Wyatt, secretary of administration for Pennsylvania's Office of Administration, which has 95,000 SAP users.

"I would love a single interface across all the applications," Wyatt said. "It would help us get more out of what we already have. People would be less afraid to use different applications - though of course we'd still have to limit access to data they can get on various applications."