Actuate Preps Spreadsheet Thoroughbred

Actuate says it has a winner in its e.Spreadsheet 9, announced last week. On this and other accounts, officials say, Actuate isn’t sweating the Microsoft thing.

Mark Twain had it easy, at least in comparison to BI player Actuate Corp. Reports of Twain’s death might have been greatly exaggerated, but Twain wasn’t periodically written off because of changing market trends. That’s been Actuate’s lot.

And in spite of last year’s steady revenue growth—which earned it a nod from market watcher International Data Corp. (IDC) for its marketplace stolidity—some skeptics are once again predicting Actuate’s demise, owing this time to Microsoft’s upcoming 2007 Office System, which is expected to support thin client Excel capabilities.

Better-than-spreadsheet spreadsheeting has been Actuate’s bread-and-butter market niche for years. Microsoft’s strategy is to target that niche where Actuate and its other competitors where they’re all the most vulnerable: pricing.

Actuate officials—who last week celebrated the release of Actuate e.Spreadsheet 9—say they aren’t sweating the Microsoft thing.

“Their focus is on the Excel Services with SharePoint, and—admittedly—there’s a lot of new expressive things they’re going to do with the Excel interface. But we love the fact that they’re making Excel prettier, because that’s going to drive demand for spreadsheets which benefits us,” says Jeff Morris, director of product marketing with Actuate. “So we see Microsoft subsuming a lot of that plug-in business, long before they realize that scalable, dynamic generation of spreadsheets is really where it’s at.”

Actuate officials, not surprisingly, tout precisely this capability. In addition to transparent trans-firewall connectivity, officials spent at least as much time talking about e.Spreadsheet’s dynamic spreadsheet generation capabilities, or what Actuate calls its SmartSheet Security Option. There’s a reason for this, of course—Microsoft’s upcoming Excel 2007 deliverable and its accompanying thin client capabilities. Dynamic (“data-driven”) spreadsheet generation gives Actuate a scalable counter-argument to thin client Excel, even as trans-firewall connectivity gives e.Spreadsheet comparable access capabilities, too.

“If you have several hundred users, Excel services might work. But how many users can you connect or plug into to SQL Server or Analysis Services through Excel? Just that basic metaphor is what’s going to limit the application of that technology, just because there’s not hundreds of users in the organization that can run Analysis Services and understand what Analysis Services is doing,” Morris indicates. “By contrast, we think every employee can benefit from just receiving a ready-made spreadsheet for themselves.”

Instead of maintaining a manual master copy of a spreadsheet, or—more kludgey still—refreshing spreadsheet data over the wire, either by means of a better-than-spreadsheet spreadsheet alternative, or (more frequently) by means of scripting, macros, and other approaches, e.Spreadsheet uses customizable blueprint designs (i.e., templates) and an integrated security model to generate spreadsheet views dynamically, or on demand.

In other words, Morris says, SmartSheet Security Option executes a single query set against enterprise data sources and manufactures one master catalogue that’s able to custom-generate spreadsheets on request. Voila, he claims: instant scalability—to the tune of tens of thousands users. It’s an approach that seems to resonate with users.

“Some of our best e.Spreadsheet prospects are those [who] have relied on [Excel] and gone through and automated the generation of their spreadsheets, but we’re talking about Rube Goldberg-style automation, where they write macros, write scripts, do all kinds of custom email scripts to automate the delivery of these spreadsheets,” Morris says. “A huge number of spreadsheet customers also have report generation capabilities of some kind, so this scalable model [of dynamic report generation] with page level security is probably the number one requested feature. It’s pretty big.”

Elsewhere, e.Spreadsheet 9 includes a new Data Range Editor to help users define dynamic workbook design blueprints, and a Data Explorer to simplify data access. In addition, the Data Range Editor ensures the proper expansion, replication and reproduction of formulas and references in spreadsheets as data expands and contracts. It also automates the use of e.Spreadsheet report functions and creates security locks against groups, ranges and worksheets to establish permissions for each recipient.

Thanks to these and other features, says Nobby Akiha, vice president of marketing for Actuate, e.Spreadsheet 9 should more than hold its own with Excel 2007.

“We’re going to continue to be as aggressive as we can afford to be. Microsoft has made this a particular issue, so, yeah, they might stall us a little bit; but, like I said, our best prospects are the ones [who] have already gone through this and recognized the headaches they’ve had as a result.”

About the Author

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