Is Microsoft winning the BI race?

I just finished reading an interesting article written by Oudi Antebi of Panorama Software.

In it he states that the Microsoft BI path has been somewhat confusing over the past few years – what with their purchase of Proclarity, and it’s subsequent withdrawal (please bring it back!), it’s development of Performance Point Server, and it’s subsequent integration into Sharepoint. (And possibly PPS revival). This has left consumers and consultancies wondering whether to invest in the Microsoft BI stack at all.

However, Oudi points out that Microsoft may be following the pareto rule of 80/20 and trying to win the hearts of 80% of the BI population by integrating basic BI features into its Office and MOSS products. It is then happy to leave the remaining 20%, otherwise known as the power users, to use software from the likes of Panorama (shameful plug Oudi), Oracle and SAP Business Objects.

Oudi’s article is interesting on several levels.

Many of you will know that I am a fan of several BI applications – Panorama, Tableau and Qlikview. These powerful applications provide the end user with a simple GUI interface and allow you to really dig down into your data and present it in a wide variety of ways. The resulting output, I feel, is at the cutting edge of BI reporting.

Several vendors are looking at offering their wares over data you may (one day?) hold in the ‘cloud’. No doubt the cloud will grow in popularity over time and it removes the cost of purchasing and maintaining hardware on site. Google is not far behind either. It has been working on several initiatives including Google Wave and Google Squared. Google has in fact worked closely with Panorama on several projects involving its Google spreadsheet application. Google also bought the rights to the Gapminder graphical application which allows you to view you data over several dimensions over a moving time period. Fantastic product and demonstrated like no other by Ola Rosling in several conferences. I wrote about a presentation he done at TED which was unbelievable. But I digress.

The fact is that Oubi thinks that this is a race with one winner.

I disagree.

Microsoft, with its current BI stack, will not win the BI race. In fact, I don’t think there will be or can be a winner. BI means different things to different people. BI is vital to all organisations, and will one day be used by every employee at every level. From basic tabular reports, to graphs to dashboards. We are all living in an age where we are confronted by mountains of data. Data storage is growing exponentially. Simply look at the size of your home storage, and the volume of music or photos or files that you may store. How does that compare to your system of 5 years ago? And imagine the data being collected by telecoms companies, retail companies, reward schemes, etc. So any system which can aggregate that data, cleanse it and present it in a form which is accurate, timely and relevant will be of enormous value to an organisation.

There are people who prefer to see tables of data for which Excel is an excellent option. There are others who want to track metrics and KPI’s, and several applications, including Xcelsius allow you to do just that. Other people or power users may want to drill down into the underlying data, to really determine the causes of a strange number – an outlier. Several companies are offering applications on mobile devices such as the iPhone, as discussed here by Timo Elliot. Again, this advance will satisfy a small subset of the BI community.

Price also plays an important part, and this is where Microsoft will win many hearts and minds, and perhaps more importantly, the signature on the purchase order. A number of BI vendor solutions are very expensive indeed. Others are more realistically priced, and several Microsoft solutions may be used at no additional cost depending on the type of licence you hold. With Office being the predominant application on users desktops, embedding simple BI functionality into Excel is a no brainer. Perhaps an organisation is using Sharepoint as an internal document portal. Well, now you can put up some dashboards using PPS functionality.

While I think there is a big place for Microsoft in the BI world, I certainly don’t think it is going to be the ‘winner’. Smaller, more nimble BI software companies, are pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved with BI, offering us with ever more imaginative ways of viewing our data and extracting the key information we need to know. Several of the larger vendors offer organisations a strong case to use use their complete stack, from database, to ETL and data cleansing, to creating cubes/universes, reports and right through to dashboards and KPI’s. A one stop solution from one of the largest BI vendors.

These vendors are focused 100% on BI.

Not Office.

Not Windows.

Not XBox.

Just BI.

And having a laser like focus on BI will give these organisations the edge to develop the very best products on the market.

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