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Microsoft Makes Business Intelligence Push

Microsoft wants to bring business intelligence (BI)  capabilities to the masses. That was the main pitch Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division, made to attendees at the company's first ever BI conference in Seattle today.

To show Microsoft  means business, Raikes announced expanded relationships with three key BI consultancies, the acquisition of a product meant to transform Office 2007 applications into BI authoring tools, and a roadmap for delivering the next major release of its SQL Server product codenamed Katmai, which will become the foundation of Microsoft’s BI platform stack, in 2008.

As it has in other areas, Microsoft is seeking to commoditize BI tools and capabilities in a strategic move meant to displace Oracle . While Raikes and other company officials never came out and uttered their chief competitor’s name, they criticized BI today as an expensive and arcane art practiced only by the initiated.

"We feel very strongly that people are paying far too much for BI and getting far too little and we at Microsoft are dedicated to changing that," Raikes said during a webcast of his keynote address. "Our goal . . . is to democratize access to business insight."

Not surprisingly, Microsoft plans to achieve those goals through radically reducing the current per user price points as well as dramatically increasing the ease of use for BI tools to provide a "complete and seamless BI offering," Raikes added.

To demonstrate support from industry players, Microsoft officials announced expanded strategic relationships with Accenture, Capgemini and Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. For instance, Capgemini plans to train 2,000 more of its consultants on Microsoft’s BI tools by the end of the year, the companies said.

There is a lot at stake in this burgeoning marketplace.

One of Microsoft's competitors in the BI space, Oracle, recently upped the ante with rivals when it spent $3.3 billion on BI leader Hyperion Solutions. But Business Objects and Cognos are also seen as major players in the sector.

Indeed, Raikes cited a recent Wall Street Journal story that 13 percent of businesses plan to make their first purchases of BI software this year, and stated that more than $23 billion was spent on BI in 2006 alone.

Microsoft also announced it has bought SoftArtisan's OfficeWriter, a tool for BI report authoring within Microsoft Office applications – specifically Excel and Word. "We are very focused on integrating [BI capabilities] into familiar tools like Office," Raikes said.

The OfficeWriter technology will be distributed in the Katmai "wave," Francois Ajenstat, director of product management for SQL Server, told internetnews.com. Translation: since Katmai is already on a schedule, it may not be possible to actually ship OfficeWriter as part of the package when the database ships.

Microsoft's expected to reveal more details of upcoming features in Katmai at the conference on Thursday.

Raikes also discussed another important component of Microsoft's BI platform strategy, its upcoming Office PerformancePoint Server 2007. The business performance management application is in its second community technology preview (CTP) and on schedule to ship by summer’s end. A Microsoft Web site describes the product as providing performance management tools and capabilities including "scorecards, dashboards, management reporting, analytics, planning, budgeting, forecasting, and consolidation."

Although Microsoft officials make this complex product rollout seem simple, the reality is likely to be a bit different than their vision. For one thing, Oracle and other competitors aren't likely to make it easy for Microsoft.

"The road is just begun [and Microsoft has] clearly got a long way to go," Chris Alliegro, lead analyst for business applications and servers at industry newsletter Directions on Microsoft, told internetnews.com. "They’re looking at the overall stack and trying to price things at around 20 percent to 25 percent of what a traditional BI solution costs."

But what good is cheap software if the results don’t match the hyperbole? "One of the gauges is how much better Microsoft’s own performance gets over time," added Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group. For instance, Enderle cited the late delivery of key Microsoft products such as Windows Vista as indicative of BI not working as well as it should at Microsoft. "They do eat their own dog food so they become one of the best measures of how good their tools are," he said.

Alliegro is less skeptical: "Microsoft is definitely serious [about BI] and a lot of the pieces are in place. I can’t do a check box comparison [between Oracle and Microsoft] but it strikes me as logical – bringing BI tools to a lot more users."

In the long run, besides how well Microsoft executes on its strategies, both analysts agree that much of the software giant's potential for success revolves around its BI channel partners.

"It depends on the quality of the partnerships," said Enderle. "We'll have to wait and see."