Adobe Acquisition Paves Way for BI Foray

Is Adobe preparing to make a big BI splash?

Is Adobe Systems Inc. preparing to make a business intelligence (BI) splash? Not likely, but with Adobe’s move into collaboration, can knowledge management (KM) or even BI be far behind?

On the surface, few if any of Adobe’s technology offerings are explicitly BI-centric. But in the form of its ubiquitous Portable Document Format (PDF) authoring and viewing technology; its Flash visualization technology; and the addition this month of collaboration capabilities, via its acquisition of instant messaging (IM) vendor Antepo, Adobe has, at the very least, the makings of a de facto knowledge generation portfolio.

All that’s missing, it seems, is a dedicated KM component.

Adobe enjoys a kind of underground ubiquity in the BI space today. Most prominent reporting tools—including offerings from Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., Hyperion Solutions Corp., MicroStrategy Corp., Oracle Corp., and SAP AG—support Adobe’s PDF, typically as an output method for viewing or printing reports.

A smaller number of BI players, vendors such as Business Objects, MicroStrategy and SAP AG, also support Adobe Flash, typically as an interactive dashboard complement to their ad hoc query and analysis tools. Meanwhile, Flash has emerged as the visualization technology of choice for a host of upstart dashboard vendors, too.

Why use Flash? For starters, says Mark LaRow, vice-president of products with MicroStrategy, it gives third-party ISVs an out-of-the-box, programmable, and easily incorporable way to do data visualization. “What Flash gives you is animation, and that animation as trivial as it might sound is quite frankly tremendously important to make these dashboards much more engaging,” LaRow comments. “The very newest dashboarding products on the market are based on Flash, because it’s that much more engaging to the user.”

Business Objects struck first, in a roundabout way, by purchasing the former Infommersion Inc., developer of a Flash-powered dashboard application called Xcelsius, in late 2005. Analysts praised Xcelsius’s candy-apple sheen but questioned its relevance, at least vis-à-vis a Business Objects stack that already included a dashboard offering (Dashboard Manager). Fast-forward 16 months, and you’ve got a combined Xcelsius and Dashboard Manager stack which industry watchers commend. (http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?id=8300)

Earlier this month, MicroStrategy unveiled its own Flash-powered Dashboard offering.

Adobe itself touts Flash’s potential usefulness—in tandem with its Flex client-side Flash-rendering technology—as a tool for dashboarding. (http://www.adobe.com/devnet/flex/articles/dashboard_02.html)

According to Adobe, Flex—which runs on top of a J2EE application server—can use text files with MXML tags to render Macromedia Flash content on a client.

Adobe senior product evangelist Ben Forta compares Flex to Adobe’s ColdFusion technology, which he describes as “more of an all-purpose” development platform. “Flex has a far more focused objective and a very specific goal. Flex is designed to facilitate the creation of rich and engaging presentation layers, letting developers create well designed and optimally architected n-tier applications that adhere to standards and best practices,” writes Forta in an online tutorial. “With Flex, coders can take advantage of the ubiquitous Flash platform from a very code-centric starting point, but what Flex generates is still Flash content. In other words, Flex is all about presentation and user interaction.”

And while the Flex-based dashboard vision touted by Forta is very different from that of the interactive (and Flash-powered) performance dashboards marketed by Business Objects, MicroStrategy, and other specialty vendors, Flex—like Microsoft Corp.’s first-generation BI deliverables, for example—do give Adobe-centric developers a means to easily embed basic dashboard capabilities into their applications. There’s a sense in which Flex—in tandem, at least, with Adobe’s more powerful Flash app dev tooling and programming language --comprises the basics of a dashboard-building factory.

Of course, few if any industry watchers say Adobe is mulling a move into the BI space. But some do say the company is preparing to make a splash in the collaboration segment. That’s the conclusion of Gartner analysts David Smith, Toby Bell, and Jeffrey Man, who suggest that Adobe plans to introduce a full-fledged collaboration suite.

“With Antepo, Adobe gains a presence engine which could potentially be tied to IP telephony infrastructure, federates with multiple IM networks and runs on Windows and Linux,” they write. “Adobe's acquisition of Macromedia … brought the first wave of real-time collaboration capabilities to integrate into its document-centric collaboration strategy. This ‘buy versus build’ approach of gaining collaboration components can potentially move Adobe more quickly into the enterprise market.”

Going forward, the Gartner trio predicts, Adobe will promiscuously embed collaboration features across its product lines. “Adobe plans to embed IM and presence capabilities into its product line, particularly in Acrobat, and ultimately create links to Microsoft and IBM via Antepo's dual protocol [XMPP and SIP/SIMPLE] IM and presence platform,” they indicate. “Extending multiple points of presence into its document-centric collaboration framework will enable Adobe to support contextual collaboration capabilities regardless of the enterprise infrastructure. Presence information from team members could be surfaced in a shared document context with the ability to launch a Web meeting.”

Not that Gartner says Adobe will be an altogether disruptive force in the collaboration or KM spaces: if anything, they predict, Adobe needs to position itself as a complement to popular solutions from Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp. “Adobe faces the challenge of finding a niche where it can add value to collaboration capabilities from incumbents such as Microsoft and IBM, where Adobe’s document-centric collaboration can be used with Windows SharePoint Services or IBM Lotus QuickPlace,” the triumvirate write.

Wayne Eckerson, director of research and services with The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI), says it’s much too early to talk about a BI-conscious Adobe, but says the software giant has played, and will continue to play, an important role in the maturation of BI solutions. “PDF has been a staple of reporting for a long time. Flash, on the other hand, and Flex are going to drive the redesign of user interfaces, in BI and other domains,” Eckerson comments. “I'm not sure there's more to it than that right now, but it's food for thought!”

About the Author

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