Microsoft’s Data Visualization Coup

ProClarity’s data visualization capabilities surpass those of most prominent business intelligence pure plays.

Microsoft Corp.’s acquisition last week of long-time companion ProClarity Corp. augments the software giant’s SQL Server-based business intelligence (BI) stack with data visualization capabilities that in certain respects rival or surpass those of prominent BI pure-plays—including Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., and MicroStrategy Inc., to name just a few.

Microsoft didn’t nab ProClarity solely for its visualization technology, of course. In fact, Redmond’s move could have seismic implications for the industry as a whole, and for BI pure-play vendors in particular. The acquisition of ProClarity is Microsoft’s most ambitious move to date into the BI front-end tools segment. More to the point—and regardless of how Microsoft spins it—it marks a departure from the back-end-centric (and notionally partner-friendly/vendor-neutral) BI strategy on which the software giant first rode to BI prominence. (http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?ID=7902)

These are important considerations, but Microsoft’s acquisition has equally important ramifications for BI users—including not just ProClarity’s own customer base, but also Microsoft’s SQL Server BI base. On the visualization front, there’s a lot for existing (and prospective) Microsoft BI customers to like—and something for the BI pure-plays to be concerned about. That’s because ProClarity—small-time, Microsoft-oriented niche player or no—has a more compelling data visualization solution set than do most of the BI powers that be; or at least, so say a number of industry watchers.

Cindi Howson, a principal with BIScorecard.com and a member of TDWI’s research collaborative, says ProClarity’s visualization technology—which she stresses isn’t in the league of specialty vendors such as Tableau Software or Spotfire Inc.—is nevertheless impressive. “Their decomposition tree is fairly unique—users are less likely to get ‘lost’ drilling compared to other vendors’ drill techniques. The heat mapping on charts is good. Some of these capabilities are better than what you get from the leading BI suite vendors.”

An industry analyst who spoke on background makes the point even more starkly. He says that with the exception of SAS Institute Inc., the visualization tools proffered by ProClarity do surpass those of the major BI pure-plays. He commented that specialized vendors such as Tableau Software and Spotfire are in a separate league, however, and that Proclarity’s visualization tools suffer from common problems, such as poor formatting of results and arbitrary 3D. That being said, he concedes that Microsoft could plausibly leverage its new visualization assets to compete against the BI powers that be.

Mark Madsen, a decision support manager with online retailer Harry & David who also—like BIScorecard.com’s Howson—moonlights as a TDWI research collaborator, agrees. “[ProClarity isn’t] at the same level as other visualization vendors, but [they are] more sophisticated than what Microsoft offers today. It looks to me like this positions them to compete better in the OLAP and reporting space. I don't have any hands-on with Proclarity products, so I'd have to defer to someone else's opinion regarding how robust and competitive they are for reporting, OLAP, [or] ad-hoc. [They are] definitely more off-the-shelf than what is being offered with Reporting Services and Analysis Services.”

In this respect, Madsen says, the acquisition could have a chilling effect on other would-be ProClaritys—that is, companies which market solutions designed to complement (or otherwise exploit) Microsoft’s SQL Server underpinnings.

“This probably chokes off a lot of development that would otherwise be going on in the Microsoft ISV community related to BI. Every time Microsoft enters a market where their partners are working, the cold Seattle death wind hits the revenue streams and startup funding in the affected market segment,” he notes.

So why has Microsoft risked a BI strategy that served it well? Madsen sees a couple of potential explanations. “I guess in this case [Microsoft] didn't see enough of a community driving things and probably saw an opportunity to take revenue going to the mainstream BI vendors.”

About the Author

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