Crystal makes roadmap clear with new offering

Crystal Decisions Inc. has added some new features to its data analysis software that make it a powerful program, according to one industry observer. However, the company’s previous branding decisions could serve to undermine that achievement.

Crystal in July unveiled Crystal Analysis Professional 8.5, a program for creating easy-to-understand reports from multidimensional databases.

Multidimensional databases provide companies with in-depth pictures of where they stand.

Let’s say the vice-president of sales wants to see a comparison of the number of blue men’s shirts sold in one region and another. He also wants to know how old the buyers were, whether they were male or female and how often they shop at the company’s retail outlets.

Multidimensional databases can present the information, but you need some sort of analysis software to transform the data into something the vice-president of sales can understand. That’s what Crystal Analysis Professional 8.5 does.

According to James Church, Crystal Decisions’ Burnaby, B.C.-based director of Crystal Analysis, the company addressed ease-of-use with v8.5, and kept ease-of-administration in mind when designing it.

The latest version includes a “rich client viewer” so users can manipulate data from a Web interface. Crystal also connected v8.5 with Microsoft Corp.’s spreadsheet program Excel, which “allows power users to do quite complex slice-and-dice operations within Excel, their business scratchpad of choice,” Church said.

As well, the software now supports three kinds of online analytical processing (OLAP) servers, the technology behind multidimensional databases: Microsoft’s SQL Server 7 OLAP Services and SQL Server 2000 Analysis Services, SAP AG’s Business Information Warehouse and Crystal’s own Holos platform. This addresses “a real need in the customer base,” Church said.

“[Users] find it hard to standardize at the database level, let alone the OLAP server level. There’s a need in many organizations to talk to more than one OLAP server.”

As for administrative functions, Church said v8.5 plugs into Crystal Enterprise, the company’s report generator that ships with Analysis. So through a single Web-based interface the network administrator controls not only Analysis functions, such as access control lists, but also administration of the Enterprise report publishing functions.

Mike Schiff, vice-president of e-business and business intelligence with Current Analysis Inc., a research firm in Sterling, Va., said Crystal made the right decisions with v8.5.

For one thing, the software leverages Crystal Holos, the company’s powerful OLAP platform. “They sort of ignored that product for a while,” Schiff said. “They’re finally making this part of the family.”

The Excel integration is “very important,” he said, explaining that users partial to the spreadsheet program seek business intelligence software that works well with Excel.

But Crystal faces a challenge with branding, Schiff said. The company has a convoluted history and a similarly unwieldy naming convention that perhaps confused potential customers.

The company got its start in 1984 as Crystal Decisions, but was purchased in 1994 by Seagate Technology LLC, a disk drive manufacturer in Scotts Valley, Calif. To better align itself with the new parent company, Crystal changed its name to Seagate Software – a bad move on the branding front, Schiff said.

“There really wasn’t that association unless you knew it, that Crystal…was a product of Seagate Software.”

Seagate eventually sold out to a U.S. venture capital firm and Crystal took the opportunity to regain its name. But Schiff said the damage was done.

“They’re one of the few companies…showing increasing revenues and they’re probably profitable. But a lot of people just don’t know about them.”

The latest version of Analysis Professional should serve to bolster the company’s prospects, he added.

“I think people are considering them now. What [v8.5] does is show that they’re continuing to make their product easier for the masses to use, while not ignoring the specialists.”

Crystal Analysis Professional 8.5 is available now at a price of US$395 per user and US$1,585 for five. For more information see the company’s Web site,