The people in organizations who design and build reports are very different from the workers in the same organizations who actually read them. It's the latter group that Microsoft hopes to tempt with its latest foray into the business intelligence (BI) market.
Microsoft in November pulled the wraps off its Business Scorecard Manager, a BI server designed to bring business performance metrics to the desktop. Next year, the company wants to make it possible for Excel and SharePoint Portal Server to tap Oracle and SAP data sources, among others.
Microsoft's goal is to break open the functional range of Microsoft Office, an $11 billion franchise for the company but one left with less room to grow than it had in years past. If you can make Office a conduit for expanded capabilities such as BI, Microsoft's thinking goes, you can push it into new markets.
Firms of all stripes are trying to give reporting and query functionality to people on the operations level. Microsoft wants that market, and the software giant has a few things going for it. Even most nontechnical workers are comfortable with Excel, and it's already widely used. Often overlooked, as well, is the fact that the people who actually write reports or develop analysis cubes form a small portion of any given organization — 15% on average, by Forrester Research's estimate. That leaves a big, underserved BI market for Microsoft. Forrester differentiates that 85% as the "consumption" side of BI, as opposed to the "producer" side.
"Any [vendor that] isn't focusing on the consumption side of BI and content," says Forrester principal analyst Keith Gile, "is missing a golden opportunity."
But BI buyers beware: What report consumers want from their tools is very different from what upstream report producers want. When Forrester recently polled report consumers to ask what they like most about Excel as a BI tool, 22% cited "local data manipulation." On the other hand, 44% of report producers cited "lack of control of data" as the reason they least like Excel as a BI tool. Any company that has struggled with its data integrity, or labored to link to diverse data sources, can understand where those producers are coming from.
Vendors such as Business Objects, Cognos and Hyperion have traction among report producers, although they're pushing into the operational side. And these vendors have a point when they say — as they tend to, a great deal — that their tools are better than Microsoft's at connecting to diverse data sources.
Microsoft's Scorecard tool is designed to work with SQL Server 2000 right now; it will be able to tap SQL Server 2005 when that database bows. The company points out that the tool can also access unstructured and structured data sources using the ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) programming interface, and can tap other sources via Web services. More established BI vendors have integration components that work with almost any data sources, including ones made by Microsoft.
"You have to be able to get into all your data," says Business Objects chief marketing officer Rene Bonvanie. "What's the use of getting into 40% of your data?"
Reporting and analytics vendors have succeeded with Excel integration to varying degrees, of course. Forrester's Gile cites BI firm Actuate as offering the most mature Excel integration capabilities. The company's Spreadsheet Application Platform acts as a mid-tier server designed to push pure, fully functional Excel spreadsheets to BI consumers, while simultaneously making it impossible for those consumers to update systems or alter data stored on the back end.
— Ted Kemp
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