Life After BI Acquisitions: Users Paint a Mixed Picture

Most users with whom we spoke say they will stay with their installed product, and they can’t imagine using anything else. Some, however, indicate that if they’re not satisfied with Business Objects’ service and support, they may tap Microsoft Corp.’s forthcoming SQL Server Reporting Services.

When the dust had settled following a summer of turbulence in the enterprise reporting space, we spoke with users of reporting products from the former Brio Software Inc. and Crystal Decisions Inc.

At the time the acquisitions were announced, end user enthusiasm seemed inversely related to each company’s perceived standing in the marketplace: To the extent that Crystal was perceived as a healthy and independent competitor, then, users took a cautious approach to the acquisition; to the extent that Brio was viewed as weak and vulnerable, on the other hand, users rejoiced.

We spoke recently with Brio and Crystal users to find out how, if at all, their perceptions have changed over the last several months. We found that most Brio users remain enthusiastic, applauding Hyperion for rescuing the company from near oblivion—or, worse, irrelevance. Users of Crystal’s Crystal Reports product, on the other hand, seem more conflicted, largely because Business Objects has been unable to say very much about how it plans to integrate Crystal’s technologies.

Most of the users with whom we spoke say that they will stay with the product, and that they can’t imagine using anything else. Some, however, indicate that if they’re not satisfied with Business Objects’ service and support, they may tap Microsoft Corp.’s forthcoming SQL Server Reporting Services.

White Knight Hyperion

When Hyperion Solutions Corp. first announced plans to acquire reporting down-on-its-luck reporting power Brio Software Inc., for example, users of the latter company’s solutions greeted it as a white knight of sorts.

Like many users, Steve Cavill, a former Brio employee who now heads up a business intelligence and reporting consultancy in Australia, perceives Hyperion as a white knight that snatched Brio from the jaws of disaster. “As far as I can tell Brio was in severe financial difficulty and simply could not compete as too small a player in the purely BI space,” he says, noting that Hyperion should be better on the marketing side as well. “The injection of capital provided by the Hyperion acquisition should alleviate the constraint on Brio product development and marketing that limited the reach of the Brio products.”

Another Brio user, a report developer with a large commercial vineyard, echoes Cavill’s assessment. “If anything, the concern was of Brio's stability before the announcement [of the acquisition],” he notes. “Brio went through a reshuffle [in 2001] which saw the product range renamed and Brio acknowledged … If anything this acquisition may have solidified the products’ future.”

As Adam Franz, an independent Brio consultant, concedes, “It’s difficult to have any specific expectations” in the immediate aftermath of so large an acquisition. However, Franz says he was (and is) optimistic about Brio’s ownership change. “I expected and still expect, in one form or another, Hyperion to review any existing needs of Brio clients that are not presently being met,” he comments, citing reasonably priced enterprise-wide licensing of Brio Quickview and support for conflict resolution of older products (with respect to Microsoft security patches).

Going forward, Franz expects Hyperion to enhance the functionality of Brio’s products. “I also have [expected] and will continue to expect Hyperion to allow Brio to maintain their present standards in technological development and customer support and not allow these standards to be compromised by the priorities of building new integrated and hybrid products,” he notes.

Most Brio users sound resigned to changes of some kind. Brio consultant Cavill, for example, says he expects Hyperion will naturally promote Brio products that integrate more effectively with its own. This means that the fate of other Brio products less well-suited to integration hangs in the balance. “I would expect some shakeout in the Brio product line. Where products can be integrated well with Hyperion”—he cites the Brio Intelligence desktop query and analysis products—“there would be further development of the products both as standalone products and as part of other Hyperion products. A question mark remains in my mind over the other Brio products—SQR and the Foundation Servers. If these can't be included in other Hyperion products, I'm not sure why Hyperion would keep them as standalone products.”

For his part, the report developer introduced above says that he’s quite happy with the look and feel of Brio’s current toolset and is apprehensive about some of the changes that Hyperion has in store. “The Brio toolset currently provides the functionality needed with the benefit of having a simple-to-use [and] navigate interface that our users are familiar with,” he explains, acknowledging that integration with Hyperion’s products will probably introduce changes of some kind: “If a merge could be achieved which retained the look and feel and existing Brio functionality without introducing additional levels of complexity, then that would be great.”

Users have some doubts, however. Cavill has expressed concern about Hyperion’s communication with Brio customers in Australia, but allows that things may be different in the United States. Franz, just back from a Hyperion presentation focused on the Brio acquisition, says that the former company has been largely upfront with respect to its integration plans for the latter. “I am under the impression … that it is their intention to [both integrate and continue to support Brio’s standalone products], and I firmly hope that they will hold true to that intention,” he says. “[Hyperion] expressed their realization that a major Brio selling point is its ability to function with wide ranges of software platforms in terms of databases and operating systems and so forth. They assured the audience that they have every intention of maintaining this functionality so as not to lose any of Brio's present client base.”

Cloudy Crystal Ball

Crystal Users, on the other hand, have been less warm to the idea of ownership by a foreign BI power. Many of the users with whom we spoke in the immediate aftermath of the company’s acquisition by Business Objects were cautiously optimistic about the deal. Even so, it was a common sentiment among many that, as Crystal Reports user Pete Sral put it, “They would have to monkey it up real good for us to look at other products.”

Fast-forward to the present and many questions remain unanswered for Crystal users, largely because Business Objects can’t say very much until the $820 million acquisition is formally complete. Unlike Hyperion and Brio, which have very little overlap between products, analysts say there’s some overlap between Business Objects’ and Crystal’s respective product sets. As a result, the scenarios that Business Objects develops to integrate Crystal’s technologies with its own could introduce a substantial degree of change.

Aaron Zornes, a senior vice president of application delivery strategies with consultancy META Group, acknowledges that Crystal presents a comparatively difficult integration challenge for Business Objects, but says that based on what he’s heard from company executives, there’s no cause for concern. “Crystal’s users, in particular, shouldn’t worry, because Crystal Enterprise, clearly, brings a lot of strength to Business Objects’ product line … it was an excellent match,” he comments. “Part of the reason [Business Objects is] quieter is that the deal hasn’t formally been approved, but what we get from Business Objects’ management is a great sense of confidence, and appropriate insight into their processes, that the merger would go well. They’ve given us a great sense that they know what they’re doing and they’re executing on target.”

In spite of this, the acquisition presents users with questions that haven’t been answered (and probably won’t be) until sometime late this year at the earliest. Until then, users can only hope for the best. “I would hope that Business Object continues with the Crystal product line and doesn't simply absorb the technology into their other products and let Crystal die,” says one report developer, who asked to be quoted anonymously.

While the fate of Crystal’s high-end Crystal Enterprise product is viewed as reasonably secure, Crystal is troubled by marketplace uncertainty on the low end, where Microsoft’s Reporting Services could entice many customers that leverage Crystal Reports for reporting.

As a result, says this report developer, if Business Objects makes substantial changes to the packaging or licensing of Crystal’s products, his company will probably have to look at an alternative solution—such as Reporting Services—in spite of the fact, he allows, that Microsoft’s tool is probably less than ideal for its purposes. “We would absolutely consider Microsoft, especially since the database we are reporting against is SQL Server,” he remarks. “One of the reasons that we chose Crystal Reports is its ability to serve up reports using the legacy version of ASP, not the current .NET version. I would tend to believe that any solution that Microsoft would provide would tend to leverage their technologies and not be as flexible.”

Another report developer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says she’s currently beta testing Microsoft’s Reporting Services and will replace Crystal Reports when it becomes available. “We are no [longer] looking at Business Objects and Crystal Reports anymore,” she says. “We are planning, in fact, once Reporting Services moves into general availability, to standardize reporting across the enterprise [on it],” she says.

Still others say they can’t imagine life without Crystal Reports. At the time the acquisition was announced, one user—a report developer with a hosted payroll services provider—told us that “I don't know which system I would switch to” if he were dissatisfied with Business Objects’ service and support. If all else failed, he said, he could just stay on Crystal: “I use Crystal for a variety of databases. For a good long time I could continue using my [existing Crystal Reports] software to extract data.”