Q&A: Crystal Reports As Autonomous As Ever

Business Objects’ James Thomas dismisses Microsoft’s Reporting Services as just another in a line of Crystal “clones”

These days, James Thomas is director of product marketing with Business Objects SA, where he heads up that company’s Business Objects Enterprise (nee Crystal Enterprise) and Crystal Reports XI product lines.

Just two years ago, Thomas was in pretty much the same position with a then-sovereign Crystal Decisions Inc. But even though Crystal the company lost its autonomy, Thomas says Crystal Reports is just as autonomous as ever—if you’re looking to report against heterogeneous relational, multidimensional, or XML data sources, that is.

We spoke with Thomas about Crystal’s autonomy, Business Objects’ Crystal strategy (hint: developers are just as important as they ever were) and the threat posed by Microsoft’s Reporting Services, which Thomas dismisses as just another in a long line of Crystal Reports “clones.”

There were a lot of questions about whether you planned to maintain Crystal’s traditional bundling arrangements with Microsoft, Borland, and other development tools vendors. It looks like the answer to that question, two years on, is a pretty definite yes. But how do you rationalize this in the context of your overall BI strategy? I mean, you spent $800 million on Crystal for a reason, right?

The strategy has been to provide developers with integrated reporting within their IDEs, within their development environments. Visual Basic was where we started, but today we support Microsoft Visual Studio .NET, and we’re going to be integrated into Visual Studio [.NET] 2005.

Over the last few years, we’ve really focused on the Java market, so we’re bundled with the IBM/Rational WebSphere Developers Studio, which is based on Eclipse. We are also bundled with Borland JBuilder, as well as BEA’s developer Workbench. So if you put that together, it combines a majority of the application development environments out there today from the Java and the Microsoft side.

That’s impressive, but what I really want to talk about is your strategy. By courting J2EE tools vendors, you’ve arguably expanded Crystal’s bundling universe since the acquisition. What’s the strategy behind this?

The idea was always to seed the market with Crystal Reports—to get as many people using Crystal as possible. That hasn’t changed [with Business Objects]. The way we see it, the more people using Crystal Reports, the better.

Is there a kind of built-in expectation that by [seeding the market], many users [of Crystal Reports]—larger users, perhaps—will outgrow that product and decide to step up to Crystal Enterprise?

Business Objects Enterprise is the brand name that we put out there for our enterprise-type customers, for the larger enterprise customers. Yes, typically, they require a full business intelligence solution, or they could just require a scalable solution, and Business Objects Enterprise is the one we recommend there. So I think a lot of the people are using our free [Crystal Reports] reporting solution, without necessarily doing the upgrades right away, which is fine with us, because the more Crystal Reports out there, the better for us.

Earlier this year, you announced Crystal Reports Server, a new offering that helped make you more competitive in the small and medium enterprise accounts. Did competitive pressure from Microsoft’s Reporting Services offering have anything to do with this?

Really, it was several things. First, there’s the branding challenge we face, where there are still some people who don’t know that Crystal is now Business Objects. That’s why Crystal Reports Server was really created as the means to distribute Crystal Reports over the Web.

Second, there’s still a huge opportunity. There’s still a number of people who need to do report distribution in a relatively small way, so there’s that reason. It’s powered by Business Objects Enterprise. It’s the exact same platform and exact same code base, but it’s targeted at the departmental, mid-market types of companies, whereas Business Objects Enterprise is designed for the large enterprise customers.

But no competitive pressure from Microsoft?

Reporting Services isn’t as free as you think it is. You still have to buy a database, you have to pay for that licensing. Microsoft is a real factor, but the install[ed] base you have [with Crystal Reports] is just such a huge advantage. It’s hard to find an organization that doesn’t have it in some way in their company. In many companies, they have many different pockets of Crystal Reports, and they’re simply looking to manage their reports in a cost-effective way.

So Crystal Reports Server is really the product designed as much to meet a market need to distribute Crystal Reports in a very cost-effective manner.

You’re going to be bundled with Visual Studio .NET 2005, as you pointed out, and Microsoft itself has said it will provide [embedded] Crystal for the foreseeable future. But Microsoft is growing more ambitious with the version of Reporting Services it’s shipping with SQL Server 2005. How does their more aggressive marketing rhetoric affect your relationship with them?

We remain committed to partnering with Microsoft in lots of different areas. We’ve seen competitors come and go in so many different areas. At any one time, there [are] 50 or so Crystal Reports clones out there trying to make a noise for themselves, so we’re not too concerned about [Reporting Services].

If you talk about reporting, you need to talk about any data source and any development language, so it has to be both Java and .NET. It has to work with whatever application server you have, not just WebSphere or Microsoft. We still think there’s a need for an independent, platform-agnostic, Java and .NET reporting platform. This is where you hit the wall with a pure Microsoft or a pure Java approach. You have to have both.

You’ve been courting the Java tools space, but most of the feedback I’ve heard from J2EE developers indicates that they’d still rather build than buy—or that they’re content to work with open source Java reporting solutions. What’s your take on this market?

The developers who are building Java [reporting] solutions that we’ve seen tend to prefer to build a lot more than buy. They tend to start from scratch and hand-code. Java developers we find, we’ve always provided them tools in their IDEs. We find the uptake is getting there—it’s not there yet.

There’s a bit of a cultural shift that’s happening as Java developers are more mainstream now. IIt’s not a fringe language. It’s not an anti-Microsoft language. So we’ll continue to support those, and Crystal Reports is one of the de facto standards out there.

Reporting has always been important—some experts say it’s the most essential part of BI—but it seemed to explode in importance a couple of years ago, during the summer of 2003, when Business Objects bought your company, and Hyperion bought Brio. There were also reporting entries on deck from Cognos and MicroStrategy, too. And, of course, Reporting Services, which actually shipped later [in early 2004]. What’s to account for this kind of explosion of interest in reporting, and is it something that will last?

I think it’s definitely something that’s here to stay.

Reporting is a must-have—you can’t really do your business without it—and now we’re seeing performance management is quickly becoming a must-have, too. So for IT, they’re getting more and more pressure to provide more and more reports, faster, too, and in real-time.

What most organizations have faced is a lot of integration and acquisitions as well, so they have a lot of different reporting tools. They need to report off any application that’s out there. Once again, that’s why we see a need for a platform-agnostic solution like Crystal Reports.

About the Author

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