Q&A: Information Builders CEO Gerald Cohen

The outspoken chief executive shares his take on Microsoft's planned 'real-time' reporting server and gives a frank appraisal of Information Builders' first quarter.
Microsoft recently took its "Maestro" analytics server into limited beta, marking the latest step in a product evolution that has many BI vendors watching intently -- and silently. Not so Information Builders' CEO Gerald Cohen, who speaks with Business Intelligence Pipeline to share his views Microsoft's moves and what they mean for traditional BI vendors such as his company.

Business Intelligence Pipeline: Microsoft is working on a real-time reporting server that theoretically would deliver timely updates from all manner of back-office applications. Does a product like this threaten traditional business intelligence vendors such as Information Builders?

Cohen: Let's look at it clearly. Maestro is a separate announcement talking about some kind of real-time monitoring, versus BI in general. There are a number of products out there that do real-time monitoring of processes. Lots of them, in fact. In other words, business process monitoring is huge. There are about 50 companies doing business process monitoring. I'm not sure what Maestro means, I've got to admit. Nobody stands in front of a terminal watching the dials change. So I'm not quite sure what that whole announcement means.

Plus, you've got to be monitoring processes that are doing transactional types of things. I would assume such a product would be hooked into Microsoft's BizTalk Server, and not coming from some separate group. It's a very disconnected announcement, and I can see why people are confused. Most business process monitoring of back office systems and such is tied into the integration side of the house. So you would think, OK, if BizTalk was behind this, that would make sense. You would think BizTalk was getting some kind of front-end for monitoring processes. But it's not. It's an announcement coming from the database side. I think it's an illustration of how Balkanized Microsoft has become.

Business Intelligence Pipeline: Microsoft is referring to Maestro as a real-time reporting server, though. Differentiate how you define the difference between reporting and business process monitoring.

Cohen: I'm not real sure what they mean by "real-time reporting." It's nice to try to create a category, but you've got to explain it to people so they understand what you mean. I honestly don't know what they mean by real-time reporting. I read the announcement and I just didn't quite understand it. They also seem to imply that data can reside in places other than SQL Server. Some of these things, we'll believe it when we see it. Sometimes you've got to separate the product announcements that are made just because they can be made, versus when there's actually a problem out there that needs to be solved. Sometimes products are introduced because you can do it. That doesn't mean there are people out there waiting breathlessly for the product.

Business Intelligence Pipeline: Information Builders if of course one of the few privately held big BI players. How is this year's financial performance shaping up so far?

Cohen: We thought it was not a very strong first quarter. We saw some slow buying habits. I don't think we were alone in that. We're big enough to sense the total market. We did a little bit better overseas than we did domestically. That could be a fluke, though. That strength was mostly in Europe. I think currency issues help us a little bit also. It wasn't a terrifically strong first quarter. But at the same time, we just had our summit meeting in Las Vegas, which was our largest in about 10 years. We had a terrific response from our customers at this meeting. We're actually pretty bullish about what customers are planning to do. At our meeting, over half the talks are given by customers, not by us. You actually get to hear what customers are doing.

Business Intelligence Pipeline: What'll we see from Information Builders this year in terms of your own product lines?

Cohen: We're the guys who popularized the notion of operational business intelligence, which is really catching on. Everybody's suddenly saying, "Oh, we do operational BI." The good part of it, again, is we created the term, and our product is designed to do what it's really all about. Operational BI is the layering of business intelligence on top of an operational system that's used for other things, such as a warranty system, for example. Whatever the system is, it's not constructed just for BI. It runs things. The BI allows you to take cost savings out of it because you understand the process better. You'll see us continue to provide that. That's where our customers get the big savings.