With Next-Gen Office, Microsoft’s BI Ambitions Soar

We take a look at Microsoft’s business intelligence aspirations and try to separate fact from FUD. First in a series.

Microsoft Corp’s announced acquisition last month of ProClarity Corp. raises unsettling questions about the viability of its Office business intelligence (BI) strategy—so say some of the software giant’s competitors, at least.

An executive from one of Microsoft’s BI competitors went so far as to make some remarkable statements, speculating that a year from now, the Redmond powerhouse might not even ship ProClarity at all. This source, who asked not to be named, said that purchasing ProClarity essentially undermined the vision of Microsoft’s upcoming Office 12 release as a built-in-BI offering. Our BI deep-throat further postulated that the cost of purchasing ProClarity pales in comparison what Redmond might lose in big deals for the new Office.

This executive overstates the case (or perhaps FUDges the matter), of course. It’s true that Microsoft officials have made much of the BI capabilities of next-gen Office (or the 2007 Microsoft Office System, as it’s now called), but no one has gone so far as to position Office as a comprehensive BI solution.

Microsoft itself wasn’t an explicit BI tools vendor—at least with respect to the BI front-end arena—until it acquired ProClarity, even though the software giant had taken a few tentative steps in that direction, such as its SQL Server BI Accelerators, along with its Microsoft Business Scorecard Manager product. In other words, Microsoft has been careful to avoid stirring up the competitive pot, at least with respect to companies—such as ProClarity, Panorama, Business Objects SA, and others—with which it was also partnered.

Until now. Fact is, the BI enhancements Microsoft has built into Office 2007 are substantive and—for the great mass of users, at least—potentially game-changing. The BI-friendly feature set of Excel 2007, for example, introduces improved integration with analysis services, centralizes spreadsheet data (to help mitigate the effects of spreadmart hell), and even boasts a thin client Excel interface (via integration with Microsoft’s SharePoint portal). The upshot, according to Microsoft representatives, anyway, is that BI competitors won’t have Excel—much less spreadmart hell—to kick around anymore.

“When you think about what Microsoft’s stated vision has been all along, our goal for BI [is] ubiquitous BI, BI for the masses, pervasive BI—MS really has taken that at its core. What we really want to do is enable every single person who touches a decision to have [access to] BI at their fingertips,” says Alex Payne, senior product manager in Microsoft’s Office business applications group.

“So if we are going to make BI truly pervasive, one of the biggest things [we] can do is put BI right inside of the Office tools. There’s a big investment in the 2007 Office System release to make Excel a really good client for the BI platform. We’re including new pivot tables, new visualization charts, and other new functionality, but also this new tight integration with Analysis Services, so metadata shows through to Excel. Now it’s easier to expose KPIs [in] Excel natively,” said Payne.

And then there’s SharePoint, which—in the Office 2007 universe—becomes a centralized clearing house for Excel spreadsheet data. “If I’ve done some great analysis in Excel, because of this integration [between Excel and SharePoint], I can share it through Office SharePoint Server through something called Excel Services, [which provides] thin rendering and server-side execution of Excel sheets, as well as Report Services functionality,” Payne points out.

As a result, he argues, Office 2007 should address many of the issues that have made spreadmarting possible—if not desirable.

“Look at why spreadmarts are what they are: people use them as databases, people like the transportability of them and kind of email them around, then you get away from the single version of the truth,” he says. “So what we’re doing [in Office 2007] is we’re eliminating the need to use Excel as a database. What I mean by that is one of the reasons we see people using spreadmarts … is [because] it’s difficult to get access to information, it’s difficult to get access to data, so when they finally do get access to the data [they want], they suck all of that into Excel.” That’s where next-gen Excel’s improved integration with SQL Server Analysis Services comes into play, Payne says: “We’ve made it easier to connect to actual analytic data sources. Think of [something] like analysis services, I don’t have to know the connection string, I don’t have to remember the name of the server on which this [data] sits—we can manage all of this for you but still keep it controlled and locked down, [and] we eliminate the need for each time you go to work on data you pull it into a spreadsheet.” If anyone knows a spreadmart, it’s TDWI research and services director Wayne Eckerson, the industry watcher who’s often credited with coining the term. Eckerson likes what he sees in Office 2007 and Excel 2007 in particular, but stresses that a technology fix is only part of the solution.

“[T]hin client Excel … will address the spreadmart problem by keeping both the data and the program on the server. Sharepoint will be used to publish Excel reports, so that might minimize the number of rogue spreadsheets that people create and pass around,” he observes, noting that organizations can create policies for proper Excel use that might require users to always publish back to the server if they add data—derived or collected—to a standard company spreadsheet report. “Of course, they've made Excel more usable by expanding the grid to support almost unlimited rows now. So that makes Excel almost a full-fledged database! Plus, the charting is much improved.”

Eckerson sees a kind of irony, intentional or otherwise, in Microsoft’s next-gen Excel revamping. “Microsoft has done things to meet user needs that will both make Excel more tempting to be used as a spreadmart, [and at the same time] given IT [new] tools to limit the use of Excel as a spreadmart,” he concludes, suggesting that next-gen Excel will ultimately bring many organizations right back to square one: “In the end, companies have to establish policies governing the proper use of Excel and must enforce them.”

Microsoft to date has said very little about how it plans to differentiate between what it’s doing BI-wise in Office and what it plans to do, BI-wise and elsewhere, with the assets it acquired from ProClarity. Payne did hint, however, toward a strategy, and Eckerson and other industry watchers aren’t averse to filling in the blanks, either. Next week, we’ll take a look at Microsoft’s broader and deeper BI strategy. We’ll especially focus on just what the software giant plans to do with ProClarity. Stay tuned.

About the Author

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