Brio and Crystal: Customer Satisfaction One Year Later

Now that customers have had about a year to get a feel for what Hyperion and Business Objects have in store, what are their impressions?

When one company acquires another, oftentimes the customers it inherits take a back seat to the new buyer’s strategic vision.

This is of particular concern with large deals, such as the BI mega-acquisitions of last year, in which Business Objects SA snapped up a thriving Crystal Decisions Inc. for $840 million, and Hyperion Solutions Corp. rescued a struggling Brio Software Corp. for about one-sixth that amount.

Not surprisingly, Business Objects and Hyperion both had very different plans for their respective purchases, and there was concern among Crystal and Brio customers that their own best interests weren’t exactly given top priority. Now that these customers have had about a year to get a feel for what Hyperion and Business Objects have in store, what are their impressions? The answer is mixed.

At this time last year, Hyperion Solutions Corp. finalized its acquisition of the former Brio Software Corp. and also announced a roadmap for integrating Brio’s products with its own. Business Objects, for its part, announced its Crystal integration strategy and product roadmap in January of 2004.

In the immediate aftermath of both acquisitions, Brio users were more apt to give Hyperion the benefit of the doubt—Brio was widely viewed as a struggling company whose viability was very much in question—while Crystal users weren’t quite as forgiving. Take Brio consultant Adam Franz, for example. Last year, Franz waxed enthusiastically about Hyperion’s white knight role in rescuing Brio from potential financial implosion. He also lauded Hyperion’s deft touch after it assumed the rains at Brio and announced an integration roadmap.

“They have kept true to their word about not forcing or pressuring former Brio customers to purchase other Hyperion products,” he said. “Oftentimes … a company will take advantage of the new customer base to push or even force their own existing products on the additional customers, but Hyperion said that they would not do that and I have seen no sign that they have.”

One year later, Franz still gives the acquisition an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “Hyperion has welcomed the former Brio community with open arms,” he says. “Hyperion has … made every attempt either directly with their clients or via user groups and publications to communicate their intentions to continue to support and improve the former Brio line of products.” He also lauds Hyperion’s acquisition of QIQ Solutions, a company that released several software add-ons for former Brio products over the last few years.

What’s more, Franz says, Brio service and support is better than ever. “The support for the former Brio products … has actually improved since the acquisition,” he says. “Prior to the acquisition, most experienced developers knew that if a problem were to arise that calling the Brio help desk was a 50-50 shot. You might get someone who knows their stuff, forwards and backwards, and can solve your issues in a timely manner. On the other hand, you had an equal chance of getting someone who knew far less about the product than you did and would simply waste your time.”

Based on what he’s seen so far, Franz doesn’t think Hyperion will disadvantage current users by too tightly coupling Brio’s technology with its own product stack: “They have expressed since the beginning their awareness that Brio's flexibility in this area has always been one of its biggest selling points.”

Crystal users were more suspicious, of course. But nearly a year after Business Objects announced its Crystal integration strategy and product roadmap, few users say they have much to complain about.

Some, like Duncan Sutcliffe, a U.K.-based consultant who’s worked with several multinational corporations, even say they’re pleased with the service and support they’ve received from Business Objects. “In the UK, we have been reasonably well supplied with information from Business Objects since the acquisition,” he comments. “A product development and integration timeline was made available very early and was public on the Business Objects Web site. I'm also both surprised and impressed with the content of the product roadmap, and with the ability of Business Objects to broadly meet its deadlines.”

In particular, Sutcliffe says, Business Objects has improved the Crystal feature set and delivered many long-requested enhancements. “[Crystal Reports 11] seems to provide a few features which have been demanded for a long time by Crystal users, including one which will be of major benefit to a lot of my clients,” he confirms. “The interface makeover will make the development environment feel less outdated. This is actually quite an important point from a consultant's point of view—our clients need to be impressed with the software we use.”

Many Crystal users, of course, continue to express ambivalence about the acquisition. Take Catherine Shearer, a Crystal developer with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), who says the change in ownership has been a net draw for users of Crystal’s products. “[Business Objects] seems pretty happy with the [Crystal Reports] platform with some changes,” she comments, adding that Crystal “is getting a little more ‘programmer’ friendly and a little less ‘end-user’ friendly.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, she concedes.

Business Objects announced version 10 releases of Crystal Reports (its basic reporting package) and Crystal Enterprise (its high-end offering) earlier this year, but Shearer says her organization took a pass on those products. “[Crystal] 10 does not hold much for us and the new features of [Crystal Enterprise 10] don't do much for our implementation,” she says. On the other hand, Shearer concedes, the upcoming Crystal Reports 11 and Crystal Enterprise 11 releases “look like they will be worth the wait the upgrade effort,” especially because they’ll support new features like dynamic parameters.

With any large acquisition, some customers ultimately end up feeling as if they’ve gotten the short end of the stick. Crystal developer Jason Milner is one such user. Milner—whose organization uses both Crystal 8 and Crystal 9 internally—says he’s seen little in the way of outreach from Business Objects to long-time Crystal shops like his own. “We have very little interaction with [Business Objects] and had no idea what they are planning on doing or any other communication,” he notes.

Like IDRC’s Shearer, Milner doesn’t see much in the new Crystal 10 that’s of interest to him. “We have looked at [Crystal Reports] 10, but there was very little difference between Crystal 9 and Crystal 10, so we chose to not upgrade at this time,” he says. Unlike Shearer, however, Milner isn’t particularly excited about what he sees coming down the pike. Going forward, he says, his organization will probably take an "if it ain’t broke don't fix it" approach to Crystal’s products: “Since Crystal Reports has changed over the years, I will continue to use old versions that work. If there is something that [Crystal] will not do for us, then we will look into something else at that time.”

Business Objects has said that many of its customers also use Crystal Reports or Crystal Enterprise. For these shops, Business Objects promises improved integration between its own products and Crystal’s, both in the upcoming Business Objects XI release, as well as in a version XII release scheduled for release some time next year. Even though most of the customers we spoke to don’t fit the joint-user category, some are intrigued. “This [integration] may well be worth looking at in the future, but cost is a factor,” says Shearer. “We get [Oracle] Discoverer automatically with our Oracle license, and are building a suite of subject areas so we may well be too deeply committed to this platform to consider converting to something else.”

Crystal developer and BI consultant Sutcliffe offers a more upbeat assessment. “Whilst there is considerable overlap in the central reporting functions of Business Objects classic and Crystal Reports classic, there are also significant strengths and weaknesses which the combined offering will be able to exploit,” he says. “Crystal Enterprise has always been an exceptional tool for report scheduling and distribution. WEBI is a strong offering for ad-hoc querying. Universes and Business Views each have strengths and weaknesses. When combined in a future release we should have a very flexible and powerful meta-layer tool. It's actually an exciting time when we consider what could be offered in a unified product suite.”

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About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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