Q&A: Actuate, Acquisitions, and the State of Enterprise Reporting

The company talks about product shortcomings, multilingual support, and Excel-like report creation

It was a summer of turmoil in the business intelligence space. Actuate competitors Brio Software and Crystal Decisions were acquired, while Actuate itself was on the acquisition trail.

We spoke recently with Nobby Akiha, vice president of marketing with Actuate Corp. to get his company’s perspective on recent events and discuss recent developments in the enterprise reporting landscape.

Some folks may not have noticed, but Actuate was also a participant in the BI acquisition craze of this past summer, picking up Nimble Technologies. Could you talk about that acquisition, as well as how it fits into your strategy?

We acquired Nimble, which we feel helps us because of its expertise in enterprise information integration [EII]. We feel that it’s a good acquisition because it ties into our philosophy of wanting to make sure that we continue to offer an integrated set of capabilities with our server at the center. We’re going to be looking for opportunities to add on technologies that make sense and extend our capabilities, like Nimble, which gives us the ability to pull from all kinds of different sources [for reporting]. This is something that we feel many of our competitors haven’t even started to think about yet.

So the acquisition was made to improve the capabilities of Actuate’s own product stack, rather than to expand into a new space [EII]?

The acquisition was made because Nimble’s technology makes sense for us, because, philosophically, our approach [with the Actuate Information Application Platform] has been to provide a very solid, server-centric approach that scales [and] that gives customers the ability to create a better application experience for end users. We feel that Nimble’s [EII] expertise fits that philosophy [because] it lets customers create applications that work with a huge number of different sources, [such as] with legacy or unstructured data.

Much of this summer’s BI acquisition frenzy involved reporting vendors, as Business Objects and Hyperion picked up Crystal and Brio to try to beef up their reporting tools. Do any of these moves concern you?

Not really. Our metaphor has been to help our customers build solutions where you can combine around business intelligence and enterprise reporting in a comprehensive application that’s really designed to solve a particular set of needs that particular users might have.

So if you look at these acquisitions, they were made to sort of try and fix shortcomings that we just don’t have. With our products, we already address the whole spectrum of business intelligence, from analytics to query reporting, as well as enterprise and production reporting, and we’ve extended to really address a lot of the business users through our spreadsheet support.

What about Cognos, which released its ReportNet suite last month? Any cause for concern there?

It certainly does make them a more formidable competitor on that front, but a lot of the “new” features that they’re talking about with ReportNet are capabilities that we’ve had for some time, but they’re touting them as being brand new in the marketplace—

Such as?

Well, the claim about Unicode support. In your article [about ReportNet], you quoted them saying that they are the only ones that have multilingual support. And that’s just not true. We’ve had full Unicode support since the release of Actuate 6, which was back in 2002. I know other [vendors] have had it, too. We have a customer, [CitiBank], they do multilingual reporting with a cash management application [CitiDirect], and that provides information to various cash managers around the globe, and they actually provide support to something like 25 different languages.

When you actually read some of [Cognos’] marketing literature, it almost makes it sound like they do translations on the fly, but I believe that it’s similar to what we have, where it can do the report in French, or Hebrew, or Japanese, or English, but you have to fill out tables. They also made a claim about the fact that they could on-the-fly go from PDF to DHTML, but we’ve had that capability since back about 1999, with the first fully web-enabled version of our product, Acutate 4.

You mentioned spreadsheet support earlier. Obviously, Excel is still the most popular BI front-end tool for many analysts and business power users, and as for Excel support, it’s an area where vendors like Informatica and Crystal have made recent announcements. How committed is Actuate to supporting Excel as a tool for use with its products?

We really do believe that we have a tool where a person familiar with Excel can indeed develop reports using that paradigm, and we’ve actually been shipping spreadsheet reporting capability since 2001. What we’ve done since then is added specific capabilities where the report development component of that has become easier to use.

So the fundamental difference between Excel support for us and Excel support for our competitors is that our whole report development paradigm has very tight links with Excel, and so creating a report feels just like creating an Excel spreadsheet. That’s one real difference for us, we feel.

The ability to use Excel to build reports?

Yes. Certainly in terms of development tools, that’s the foundation of our product from the very beginning. Our competitors are trying to make it a fine line and [they are] talking about introducing development tools designed for business power users, and so on. But our approach is to look at the kinds of tools that our users are trying to use, [to look] at what they’re interacting with, so that we don’t give them a confusing [development] tool. When it comes to these business users, what they actually use is an Excel spreadsheet, so we have a tool where a person familiar with Excel can indeed develop reports using that paradigm.

About the Author

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