Q&A With Microsoft’s Office BI Point Main
When users speak, says Office BI guru Alex Payne, Microsoft listens.
We spoke recently with Alex Payne, senior product manager in Microsoft Corp.’s Office business applications group. Payne has been a point man for both SQL Server and Office BI. With Microsoft’s acquisition of the former ProClarity Corp., his universe got even bigger. But not so big that Payne can’t see the universe for its stars. In a wide-ranging interview, he talks up the next rev of Office as a good Rx for spreadmarting, discusses the crucial importance of SharePoint in Microsoft’s BI and broader application visions, elaborates on Redmond’s dashboard strategy, and hints that when users speak—e.g., “Give us SQL Server-based reporting capabilities!”—Microsoft listens.
You’ve talked generally about forthcoming features in the 2007 Office System and SharePoint that you say are intended to help redress what some folks, like TDWI’s own Wayne Eckerson, call the spreadmart phenomenon. Could you talk a bit more specifically about some of these features?
Well for one thing, we’re introducing something we call Excel Services, which is this integration [between Excel and SharePoint] that makes it possible to publish it [a spreadsheet] to everyone [in an organization].
So if I’m in Excel and I want to go do some analysis, and I know I’ve got this Analysis Services engine out there that’s got customer data, I connect to this Analysis Services cube using the new pivot table functionality. And with the new graphics engine, I can do some visualization, I can pull some KPIs through, I can plot my sales for the last six months. If I come to something and I say, ‘This is really good insight; I want to share this with my team,’ right here is where I got into the spreadmart problem before. I can still do that, but if I want to lock it down for compliance reasons, I can deploy my spreadsheet to Office SharePoint Server to something called Excel Services, [with the result that] someone can click on my spreadsheet and have an experience similar to what I had. I can collapse and expand, do it in a pure HTML Excel experience through the Web, that’s what Excel Services brings to the table.
You’ve also talked up a much bigger role, BI-wise, at least, for SharePoint in the….
Yes. One of the key things I want to drive home is the BI part of SharePoint. SharePoint is much more than just a BI portal, of course. It gives you the ability to manage all of your reports, to view them in one location, to apply filters, but SharePoint also has other functionality around search and content and enterprise collaboration, too—and all of that stuff is important, for BI and beyond. That’s going to be one of the ways we really drive BI deeper and wider. That’s the Microsoft goal. We want to see BI used in processes it’s never been used in before, in decisions it’s never been used in before. Part of how we’re going to do that is we’ve got to make BI part of your everyday business. And we’re going to do that by making BI a key component of Office and SharePoint.
Now that you mention Office, I’ve got to ask you about something I’ve been wondering about myself. For a while now, and even here [in this interview], you’ve talked up your aspirations for next-gen Office, at least on the BI front, and you’ve made much of Office 2007’s BI capabilities. I’m not suggesting that your subsequent acquisition of ProClarity is a case of cognitive dissonance, but how does buying ProClarity jibe with your optimistic take on Office 2007’s BI feature set? So much of what ProClarity does is on the BI front-end, so—given what you’ve already built into Office—isn’t there a chance that you’re going to have some significant overlap?
Well, first of all, we don’t think there’s one tool that everyone will use to quote-unquote “Go do BI.” There are two kinds of people in the world, the person who wakes up and says, “I’m going to go do BI,” and then there’s the other person who wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m going to go and do my job.” The latter are probably a much larger part of the organization, [and] a lot of what we’re talking about in Office is really about supporting those groups. I like to think about it this way—if the Microsoft goal in BI is to take BI deeper and wider, a lot about making it go wider is Office, a lot about making it go deeper is one of the reasons we did the ProClarity acquisition. They have a long history of extending the Microsoft platform, and they have thousands of customers, very high-end customers like Barnes and Noble….Big enterprise-class customers doing BI and doing very complex analysis. [So one of] the things we’re going to do is make the ProClarity objects be able to be used by more people than ever before….When I look at things like decomposition trees and perspective and other things they have in their arsenal, we’re going to use that stuff to help us go deeper.
What’s Microsoft’s dashboard strategy? Is there a chance we’ll see a branded dashboard offering, maybe based on ProClarity’s own technology?
Business Scorecard Manager , which was released at the end of last year, right about the same time when SQL Server 2005 shipped, is the scorecarding and dashboarding application from Microsoft. It builds on top of the platform of Analysis Services and SharePoint. You will see that product continue on, and will receive additional investments going forward. When we roughly look at how we go to market with regard to our products, we roughly break them into platform, end user tools and analytic applications. Historically speaking, when you look at the platform area, that’s been the domain of SQL Server. In end user tools, that’s really where you’re seeing the investment in the 2007 Office System. As for analytic apps, our first entry was BSM, which we introduced specifically for dashboarding and scorecarding applications.
BSM is viewed as your first, or at least your most explicit, client-side analytic app. In other words, it marked the first time you were nominally competing—on the client side—with some of your BI partners. Why did you make the decision to leap into the analytic fray when you did? And why didn’t you make it sooner?
The majority of things that we do are driven not necessarily by what the competition is doing, it’s 100 percent driven by customer need. Customers walking up to me at Tech-Ed, customers giving feedback saying we want this function from Microsoft. Reporting Services is one example. That was driven by customers saying, “We want to do X, and you don’t do X.” I don’t necessarily want to say it’s from a competitive perspective, it’s really from a fulfilling-customer-needs perspective. We still have certain tenets that we keep very true to, such as interoperability. So if we’re going to build a scorecarding app, we’re still going to publish open APIs, we’re still going to work with partners so that another dashboard vendor can use analysis services as part of their solution. What we just announced [in May] with Hyperion [integration between Hyperion’s and Microsoft’s BI tools], we’re competing with Hyperion, but we’re also working with them to ensure that our products interoperate.
So can we expect additional user-driven deliverables like BSM?
I think so. They’re not always going to be as big as BSM, of course. Sometimes we get fine tune questions, where people want us to tweak or improve the functionality [of a product]. They say, “We love what you’ve done with Reporting Services, but we’re just looking for more X “ So we’ve issued report packs, and a lot of the report packs are simply based on these kinds of requests [from users]. We adopt the 80/20 rule: we can do 80 percent of the work for building reports on common domains, reporting from Microsoft CRM [for example], and you go out and do the last mile. A lot of what we did with BSM was [based on this]. We were getting requests from users, “Hey, you’ve got this great platform, you’ve got these great tools, but we want to do more advanced scorecarding applications.” So that’s why we did BSM.
Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.