With Xcelsius, Business Objects Touts Better-Than-Excel Excel

Business Objects positions Xcelsius as a complement to, and extension of, Microsoft Excel

It’s been an event-filled autumn for Business Objects SA, which shuffled its top executives, shipped a new version of its flagship BI suite, and made an important data integration acquisition.

With so much going on, it was easy to miss the acquisition of the former Infommersion, which Business Objects formally completed earlier this month.

It was a lot harder to miss last week’s launch of Crystal Xcelsius, the first Business Objects-branded product based on Infommersion’s technology. Xcelsius gives a candy-apple sheen to the analytic brawn of Business Objects’ BI tools, courtesy of Macromedia Inc.’s Flash technology. It’s designed to complement Microsoft Corp.’s Excel spreadsheet, which is probably the most widely used of all BI tools. And—on top of its Flash prettiness—Xcelsius is an interactive tool, such that users can drill down into data by mousing over it, as well as perform what-if analyses on data visualizations.

“The main driver behind the acquisition was to introduce more simplicity to the end user—to make it as simple as possible to let people access and consume and share data,” says Steve Woolidge, senior product marketing manager with Business Objects. “If you think about the 14 million copies of Crystal Reports that are floating around out there, there’s a lot of data that people have stored in Crystal Reports. If we can access data in a simple way—for example, by making it visual—we feel that will be tremendously important.”

Woolidge’s use of the future tense is significant. That’s because the current version of Xcelsius doesn’t natively support Business Objects XI—nor Crystal Enterprise XI, for that matter. But it’s only a matter of time, he argues, citing his company’s successful incorporation of much larger acquisitions, such as the former Acta (ETL) and—of course—Crystal Decisions Inc.

Sometime next year, Woolidge claims, Xcelisus will integrate with the rest of the BO stack. “In 2006, our classic Business Objects customers will see a lot of great integration capabilities that will make them excited. Even in the short term, we’re getting tremendous responses,” he says.

In the interim, Woolidge stresses, there’s always Web services. “I’m not a programmer, but I can show you a demo where we call external, published Web services for things like stock tickers. It’s a true point-and-click paradigm.”

Beyond Excel

Woolidge is high on Xcelsius as an extension of or complement to Excel. He concedes that Microsoft’s spreadsheet tool is still enormously popular with financial planners and business analysts (among other power users) but says that vanilla Excel remains a tough nut for the uninitiated. “If you think about the interface for Excel, it really hasn’t changed in 10 years—but if you could take all of that information and all of the calculations you’ve done in Excel and actually visualize that, put it in PowerPoint and actually maintain that interactivity, it would be a huge value,” he argues. “You point [Xcelsius] at an Excel spreadsheet, you import all of the data and all of the models that were in there, and then you work completely within Xcelisus to drag-and-drop all of that into a flash file.”

At this point, however, out-of-the-box Xcelsius is an import-only play. As a result, users can’t manipulate data in the Xcelsius environment and re-import it into Excel, Woolidge concedes. Of course, he suggests, there’s always Web services. “I don’t know that you could put it back in Excel. Part of the value proposition is that these flash components, once they’ve been created, you can connect them through Web services with Excel, and [by doing so] it writes [the deltas] back through Web services and XML to the database itself.”

Woolidge also talks up Xcelsius as a boon to Business Objects’ burgeoning performance management strategy, as well. After all, the former SRC Software—which Business Objects acquired this summer—had a pre-existing relationship with Infommersion for its own performance management tools, Woolidge points out. “This is definitely going to be integrated in with our Dashboard Manager offering and all of our performance management products,” he says. “It provides a very intuitive way for people to do what-if analysis, to import any sort of financial model. It’s pretty easy to replicate [financial models] in Crystal Xcelsius.”

About the Author

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

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