Microsoft announces new era in business intelligence...again

Earlier this month, Microsoft hosted a conference on business intelligence in Seattle to reinforce the message that it is going to provoke a major shake-out.

"Microsoft is charting a course to transform the BI marketplace as we know it," claimed Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division.

"By fundamentally changing the economic model for BI and delivering unprecedented ease of use, we’re enabling the broadest deployment of BI possible so employees can better contribute to a company’s overall business performance."

There wasn't much new about that particular statement, but Raikes used the opportunity to preview the next version of SQL Server, code-named "Katmai", and PerformancePoint Server 2007, the integrated business intelligence suite due for release this summer.

Enhancement work on SQL Server, Raikes said, would boost the database's ability to handle large-scale data warehousing applications and tighten the links with Excel and web-driven Excel Services to deliver business intelligence via Microsoft Office tools.

The other interesting announcement to emerge was that Microsoft had acquired a reporting tool called OfficeWriter from specialist developer SoftArtisans. OfficeWriter links to SQL Server's Reporting Services module to help business users create and distribute reports within Microsoft Office.

A browser-based application, OfficeWriter can create Excel and Word files - without needing to run the Office applications - over the web by extracting data directly from the SQL Server database. Macros, pivot tables and other native Office features will work within the resulting reports.

As part of the arrangement, some of the SoftArtisans programmers moved to Redmond to join Microsoft's SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) team and elements of OfficeWriter will be included in the Katmai release, explained SoftArtisans founder and CEO David Wihl in a letter to users published on the company's website.

Microsoft also licensed OfficeWriter back to SoftArtisans, so it can continue to sell and develop the product while it is being integrated into SQL Server, Wihl said

Microsoft has been banging the BI drum for years and according to industry analyst the OLAP Report has already created a software "ecosystem" that surpasses any other BI vendor. PerformancePoint Server 2007 will turn the screw further on rivals such as Oracle (Hyperion), SAP, Cognos and Business Objects.

According to reports, licenses for PerformancePointwill not be charged on a per-user basis, as is usual in business applications, but under a single client access license, said to be around $195, which will further undermine the high prices traditionally charged for BI tools.

Overlooking Microsoft's own acquisitive approach, Raikes explained to ComputerWorld "Much more of our focus has been in how we transform the industry. Historically, you have had the pure BI players and the enterprise application vendors dabbling in BI. Our approach is much more about an end-to-end focus on BI, starting with the platform, including the integration with the Office tools and the business performance applications.

"In that case, the competitive context is, do we show customers they can get the BI capability they need [and] get BI to more people at a lower cost and with a higher return? Our bet is yes."

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