Microsoft's Challenge: Overcoming Crystal’s Dominance

Many enterprises still show a strong bias for Crystal Reports

Since its debut 18 months ago, Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server Reporting Services has been a surprising success.

As of April of this year, for example, Microsoft’s first-ever enterprise reporting tool had been downloaded 140,000 times. While it's unlikely that all of these downloads are destined for production environments, even a fraction of would-be users actually deploying Reporting Services to support production workloads would make for a significant adoption rate.

It’s an encouraging success story, but as SQL Server 2005 further fleshes out Microsoft’s enterprise reporting story—complete with a new end-user-oriented report-authoring tool and bolstered with new multidimensional analysis capabilities—there’s a chance that the software giant could find the going a bit rough. Simply put, there’s a strong bias in favor of Business Objects SA’s Crystal Reports in many enterprise environments.

Crystal, to be sure, isn’t without its discontents—some Reporting Services adopters have embraced that product precisely because of their dissatisfaction with Crystal Reports. Still, Crystal remains a popular tool among a large number of enterprise users.

IT organizations have huge existing investments in Crystal reports and Crystal expertise, and—except in cases where Crystal’s cost is of paramount concern—there seems little demonstrable incentive for such users to switch. In fact, there’s a lot of built-in resistance from many enterprise users who are today valued for their Crystal expertise.

“When customers let me choose the reporting tool, I go for Reporting Services,” says Juan Pablo Arellano, a programmer with a Latin American ISV and IT services firm who is also versed in Crystal software development. “But that's not always the case—many customers are already comfortable with Crystal, and they are reluctant to change.”

This casts Microsoft in an unfamiliar role: Trying to muscle into a market in which another vendor (first Crystal Decisions Inc., now Business Objects SA) has cultivated ubiquity – in most cases, by means of prolific bundling arrangements with a staggering number of ISVs—to help constitute a standard of sorts. “Crystal is pretty much the de facto standard in report generation, but that has never stopped Microsoft from trying to change the standard,” says Brandon Osborne, a senior permanent consultant with integrator Encore Consulting.

In many respects, Osborne concedes, the first iteration of SQL Server Reporting Services offered little incentive for many customers to make a switch, much less opt for Reporting Services in a feature/function face-off with Crystal. “I've evaluated reporting options for clients numerous times and [most] of the time Crystal won out. The times that it wasn't the selected vendor [were] generally because of budgetary constraints,” he notes. “In these instances, we went with Reporting Services or HTML-formatted reports.”

Microsoft hopes this will change with SQL Server 2005. To a large extent, users such as Osborne agree, a reloaded version of Reporting Services should compete more aggressively with Crystal Reports. “It’s considerably more advanced than the preceding version and one of the key benefits is that it has been developed to be much more user friendly than Crystal Reports.”

There’s an argument that with SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services, Microsoft has already snagged much of the reporting marketplace’s low-hanging fruit—i.e., users dissatisfied with the cost, features, or scalability of Crystal Reports. But new reporting applications emerge every day—even in environments in which Crystal today is the norm. Given the cost of Crystal for many larger organizations, SQL Server 2005 and its bundled BI stack (i.e., Integration Services, Analysis Services, and Reporting Services) could be an attractive option for these new applications—in spite of the fact that Crystal will continue to be a preferred option in many organizations.

“Almost every one here knows Crystal Reports, and we know that [it] is one of the best choices out there in the [reporting] field,” says Martín Miguel López, a Java programmer with TopGroup, an Argentine consulting and software development firm.

On the other hand, López says, Top Group is committed to the use of open-source software solutions, which explicitly rules out SQL Server and Reporting Services, so he’s currently using a Java reporting tool (Jasper) and is dabbling with the Eclipse Foundation’s BI Reporting Tool (BIRT) for Java. “Commercial solutions are not the best economical choices for us and for our clients. There are no other reasons [why we wouldn’t use Crystal].”

Java and J2EE are the yang to Microsoft’s yin (and vice-versa), but Java is used extensively today—and will be used even more extensively in the future. For this reason, SQL Server, Reporting Services, and Microsoft’s .NET-centric application vision could have limited appeal in some environments—even though J2EE/.NET bridging technologies abound.

In such cases, Business Objects expects to make a lot of hay out of the extensive bundling of Crystal Reports with J2EE and .NET application development tools. In this respect, Business Objects officials say, Crystal can function as a unified reporting solution to help bridge the ideological and paradigmatic chasm between J2EE and .NET.

About the Author

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