Microsoft offers end-user accessible BI tools

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Microsoft Corp. is on the right track by promising “business intelligence (BI) in every desktop” but the company still has to play catch up with more mature vendors, according to analysts.

Yesterday, Redmond outlined four key initiatives that it said would lead to BI tools becoming more accessible to corporate users.

Speaking at Microsoft’s first Business Intelligence Conference in Seattle, Jeff Raikes, the company’s business division president announced that:

• The next version of Microsoft’s flagship data management and analysis tool SQL Server, codenamed “Katmai” will launch in 2008

• Office PerformancePoint Server 2007, a performance management application that enables scorecarding, analytics and planning, will be released during the second half of this year

• Partnerships with product integrators such as global management firm Accenture Inc., Paris-based technology outsourcer Capgemini Services SAS, and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) Ltd. will speed up and widen BI tool deployment

• Microsoft’s purchase of SoftArtisans Inc.’s OfficeWriter, now provides users with a Web-enabled tool that generates full-function BI reports in Microsoft Office

Raikes said these initiatives are part of a plan to make it possible for BI capabilities to trickle down from planners to users.

“We’re enabling the broadest deployment of BI possible so employees can better contribute to a company’s overall performance.”

Microsoft said its approach was welcomed by many vendors and industry observers present in yesterday’s event.

However, at least two Canadian analysts noted that seasoned BI product developers remain well entrenched.

“Microsoft is [contributing to] the evolution that’s allowing more people to leverage BI,” said Joel Martin, vice-president, enterprise software, IDC Canada.

He said while Microsoft’s offerings are strong, “companies such as Cognos, SAS and Hyperion still hold the mid-market.”

Another Canadian analyst, however, believes Microsoft will also have difficulties enticing large enterprise buyers.

Vendors such as Oracle, SAP and IBM have a stranglehold on the market, according to Steve Mohammed, senior research analyst, Info-Tech Research Group Inc., in London, Ont.

He said while “there’s great opportunity in the mid-market, more recognized vendors represent quite a significant challenge in the large enterprise space.”

But a Microsoft executive said various surveys indicate that current trends back the company’s strategy.

“Numerous polls indicate that as much as one out of three employees do not have access to the data they need,” according to Elizabeth Caley, senior product manager, Microsoft Canada.

She said corporations “realize they have tons of data but don’t have the tools to enable their workers to access the information and effectively use it to improve the bottom line.”

Katmai can serve as a scalable “central data warehouse platform” that will enable users to easily consume data using front end tools in the 2007 Microsoft Office systems including Office Excel 2007, Excel Services, Office SharePoint Server and Office PerformancePoint Server 2007, said Caley.

She also said positive feedback from organizations testing PerformancePoint Server suggests that Microsoft’s BI tools have struck a chord.

In the past, Martin said, most workers creating reports on such programs as Excel and Word were not able to access data residing in their company’s BI systems.

“Now users of typical Microsoft Office applications can interact with Microsoft or other BI systems.”

Microsoft’s recently announced alliances will foster further development and deployment of its BI offerings, according to Caley.

For instance, Capgemini is set to announce details of a global initiative to train some 2,000 people on the use of Microsoft BI tools, while TCS will deliver BI products to its manufacturing and financial services customers around the world.

Microsoft’s prime data warehouse offering, however, could prove to be a handicap, according to Mohammed of Info-Tech. “Katmai may be able to integrate applications, but it is not a BI solution.”

While SQL Server has proven to be a good performer it is “largely considered by big corporations as an SMB database product, not a BI platform.”

Mohammed said the purchase of Watertown, Mass-based SoftArtisans Inc. was a good move, since the firm’s OfficeWriter will enable users to populate their Microsoft Office documents with dynamic BI data from any source.

The offering, however, is hardly original he said. “Other tools from third party vendors offer the same functionality.”

For the moment, the odds are still stacked against Microsoft, says Mohammed.

“For Microsoft to move to the big league BI market it has to build a real strong product, but market leaders only need to downgrade their offerings to serve medium sized businesses.”

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