BI Everywhere: Microsoft Is Worth Your Attention

Updated: June 16, 2010

Microsoft's new offerings center around greater support for services in SQL Server 2008 R2; the ability of Excel users to use BI-type reporting tools on both their own and data-warehouse data, presented in an Excel-type user interface; and the ability to share reports over Microsoft SharePoint. Little or nothing of this goes beyond what IBM/Cognos and Oracle, in particular, have done already. Rather, the significance lies in the Microsoft installed base to which this is being offered.

It is already a truism that Microsoft Office is the almost universal tool of most business employees. In the last few years, Microsoft Sharepoint has been approaching that kind of penetration (by some estimates, approximately 70% of Office users now also use Sharepoint). This predominance represents not only mind share among IT buyers and corporate executives, but also dominance across businesses and industries among individual employees. In other words, Microsoft has the ear not merely of the business market, but of a consumer market looking for solutions that will be of use in their work.

This marks a fundamental difference between Microsoft and all other competitors in the BI market. An SAP/Business Objects or a Microstrategy sells to, designs for, and focuses on BI specialists using a central data warehouse. Even successful attempts by such vendors to design "BI for the masses" are crowded out of much of the business-user market by a work force that tends to learn and use only a few tools for all of their tasks - most of them Microsoft. By contrast, if Microsoft decides to focus on BI that all can use, it has a user interface (Excel), a way of collaborating (SharePoint), and other tools for displaying the results of the work (Word, PowerPoint) that are entirely familiar to most workers. It is far less of a stretch for the average worker to employ these tools for BI than it is to apply, say, Oracle OLAP tools. In Oracle tools, Excel is supported, but Oracle lacks control over look and feel and has a more distant relationship with the ultimate consumer/customer.

This is not to say that Microsoft's new offerings support a full "BI for the masses" solution. On the contrary, on both the BI and the "masses" end, functionality and integration is missing. Microsoft has only begun to use its services support to implement and encourage BI-type applications available through Excel or integrated with SharePoint. Nor do Microsoft's OLAP tools yet match Oracle's and IBM's in the ability to do fancy analyses. Governance and workflow are often left to IT; predictive analytics are not as feature-rich; and not all BI features available via SQL Server are fully integrated with Excel and Sharepoint.

Therefore, feature-by-feature comparisons and TCO/ROI studies that compare Microsoft to other BI vendors will often show the superiority of the other vendor. When it comes to the many potential BI users who will not use BI through another vendor in the next few years, however, Microsoft isn't superior: it's just the only possible game in town.

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