E-mail is already considered a killer app, but business intelligence might make it even deadlier.

Shortly after covering the integration of Cognos products into IBM’s software division, I got a call from Microsoft, which wanted to discuss PerformancePoint Server, which it launched last fall. I’m used to the fact that writing about one vendor’s product will lead to interest from its competitors, but I decided to hear them out. Despite its claims to the contrary, Microsoft is still relatively new to BI, and it’s interesting to see them go after a market in which they are not already dominant.

According to Ryan Dochuk, who manages the BI products for Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont., the fundamental difference between PerformancePoint and similar BI tools is how affordable its products are. When I pressed him for more details – like how it would compare on a cost basis for a 1,000-employee enterprise versus a Cognos or a Business Objects, for example – he demurred. The other advantage he raised was Microsoft’s ability to offer BI through a familiar interface, namely its Office suite of products.

“They don’t want to have new applications. They don’t want to have new interfaces to interact with,” Dochuk said. “If you go into Excel, you can contribute what looks like spreadsheet but what you’re actually doing is using Excel as an interface, with data stored in back-end server. Still have the compliance and rigour that you need in an enterprise application, but it’s through Excel.”

Anyone who deals with the finance department knows they’re chained to Excel, but for the rest of us the more appropriate vehicle might be Outlook. Whether your firm is prepared to push out that kind of information to what is sometimes an insecure medium, of course, is another story.

I’m pretty sure IBM would argue that its most recent Cognos announcements offer an alternative to Outlook. Several of its joint products are designed to enable easy-to-use dashboards that would convey specific pieces of analytics – like if you’re going to hit your manufacturing targets or if your budget is on track. The only problem is that there are so many kinds of dashboards we haven’t seen any single interface rise to the top. Even a few minutes to learn how to use a custom dashboard is going to take longer – and involve more IT support – than using Excel or Outlook.

Microsoft’s recent partnerships with SAP, Lotus and others are part of cementing Office apps as a platform for more advanced business software, but the real push will be towards its own products, like PerformancePoint. What may prove a more serious threat to Microsoft’s BI moves is not the product plans of other BI vendors but the question of whether up-and-coming online office software, particularly Google Apps, will provide a competing vehicle for BI information.

Instead of trying to predict the next BI takeover, it would make more sense to explore what kind of partnerships IBM, SAP and others will form with productivity application vendors to make their tools as popular as Microsoft e-mail and spreadsheets. If BI is going to be accessed more directly by business users, it’s going to have to start looking more like the tools those users already know.


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