Microsoft Unveils Revamped Budgeting, Planning Tool
Microsoft expects to fold Forecaster into the same Office Business Applications group that develops Performance Point Server.
Microsoft Corp. this week plans to unveil version 7.0 of its Microsoft Forecaster product, a budgeting, planning, and forecasting tool.
What’s that, you ask? You didn’t know that there was a Forecaster 6.0, let alone a Forecaster 6.7 (the current release)? You’re probably not alone: since its acquisition from the former Great Plains Software half-a-decade ago, Forecaster hasn’t carried an explicit Microsoft brand. That’s changing: Microsoft officials expect to fold Forecaster into the same Office Business Applications (OBA) group that develops Performance Point Server, Redmond’s long-awaited performance management (PM) tool.
Forecaster is currently branded FRx Forecaster, from the former FRx Software, which Great Plains acquired prior to its own acquisition by Microsoft. "We’re currently a wholly owned subsidiary [of Microsoft]. We became part of Microsoft via that acquisition, and we go to market as our own software [brand]," says Andy Kamlet, director of sales and marketing with FRx Software Corp.
Forecaster’s focus, Kamlet says, is squarely on mid-market customers, which Microsoft defines rather broadly as companies with 2,500 employees or less. All the same, he says, Microsoft’s bread-and-butter segment is companies with 250 to 500 users. For these organizations, Kamlet maintains, budgeting and planning is still a largely manual, and consequently error-prone, process.
"They’re doing [budgeting and planning] using spreadsheets, and they’re spending a lot of time managing the spreadsheets, managing the formulas, working through consolidations, making sure they didn’t miss—you know, [if] someone added a line to a spreadsheet," he explains. "They want to be able to do this in a very fast and affordable way, but they don’t have a lot of IT support in order to implement [traditional forecasting] applications. So we really focus our development to make it fast and affordable to implement."
The revamped Forecaster 7.0 release delivers several improvements, claims senior product manager Gregg Gracheck. First up is a new UI, courtesy of a dedicated desktop client, which complements the Web-only client that shipped with previous iterations of that product. "The desktop client is a new deliverable, and one of the things we found was that there were some limitations when [customers] were working with massive amounts of data [in the Web client]," Gracheck comments. "We still have a Web access component for those budget contributors, for not only data input but for reporting as well, so they now have the choice of how they want to deploy that to users."
Elsewhere, Forecaster 7.0 boasts support for native Windows authentication, so users need authenticate only once (to the Windows Active Directory, for example) to access all compliant applications and data sources. The revamped Forecaster also supports seven additional general ledger (GL) segments—an improvement over Forecaster 6.7’s support for only three. To a degree, Gracheck says, Forecaster 6.7 could accommodate just about any kind of GL a customer had, even if the segments didn’t precisely map 1:1.
"They’d have questions like, ‘I have six segments in my GL, how do I map those to your existing three segments?’ Our existing customers understand that it’s very much okay to do that, and they still have a lot of power and a lot of ability to analyze the information, but now we’re able to say with confidence that you’re able to map 1:1 within your general ledger," Gracheck confirms.
Eventually, Forecaster will be subsumed by OBA, Kamlet and Gracheck say. And at some point, the Forecaster product will almost certainly plug into (and complement) the BI plumbing—such as SQL Server Reporting Services, SQL Server Analysis Services, and Microsoft Integration Services—that Redmond has built into its SQL Server database, as well as the BI capabilities that Microsoft has incorporated into Office 2007 and PerformancePoint. For now, they concede, Forecaster taps non-SQL Server features for capabilities like reporting.
"Not all of the users of Microsoft Forecaster have FRx [its parent financial application], so there is a reporting engine in Microsoft Forecaster that is not based today on SQL Server Reporting Services. But it’s [a] completely accurate reporting [facility]: the appropriate colors, fonts, and formatting will be displayed on that piece just as they appear on screen."
Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.