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Microsoft builds on BI

As Redmond announces plans to beef up its BI efforts, a study finds that Office applications are losing ground in the battle for casual users.

Microsoft yesterday unveiled plans to increase its investment in business intelligence (BI) with its Office 12 product while also making available the Microsoft Office Business Scorecard Manager 2005.

The announcement came as San Mateo-Calif.-based Ventana Research issued a report that found almost half of survey respondents expected to use BI systems more frequently and Microsoft Office less often to create BI documents.

"The biggest challenge today, even though there's a technical feasibility of integrating Office with BI, is it's still a manual process," said Eric Rogge, vice president and research director for BI at Ventana. "Users still have to open spreadsheet, copy and paste, click refresh. The challenge these people have is they spend a long time creating these BI documents."

The results run contrary to current trends that have made Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet program the "king of BI" and efforts by other vendors to improve integration with Microsoft's Office suite of applications.

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The study was sponsored by Cognos, Infommersion and SAP. It surveyed 1,100 organizations through partnerships with CMP United Business Media, Intelligent Enterprise, SourceMedia, DM Review, Datawarehouse.com, BusinessIntelligence.com and TechTarget, SearchCRM.com's parent company. It found that 59% of respondents said integration improvements were more important than any other BI or Microsoft Office initiative in their organizations. Among authors of BI documents, 35% said they would prefer the document creation process was automated and 27% considered the BI system as the preferred alternative to Office.

However, the study did find that Excel remains the primary tool for creating a BI document, followed by PowerPoint and then dedicated BI software.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is hoping to maintain its grip on casual users of BI. Yesterday, Microsoft said its Office 12 version, arriving in the second half of next year, will allow users to store and manage spreadsheets from a central server.

"We're increasing Excel's ability to access information in enterprise warehouses," said Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division. "What we're moving toward is Office offering industry-leading business intelligence capabilities at a price point that will allow business users throughout the enterprise to access it."

Office 12 will also leverage the company's SharePoint technologies to provide a portal for all BI content and end-user capabilities through SQL Server Reporting Services.

Microsoft also made its Business Scorecard Manager 2005 generally available yesterday. The tool allows employees to track key performance indicators against corporate goals through the SQL Server platform.

"People want to move from getting reports to focusing in on the metrics and the goals," Raikes said. "We want to transform what business intelligence means for companies. We want to make it a mainstream technology, really as mainstream as e-mail is today."

Microsoft's approach of making BI widely accessible is the right one, Rogge suggested.

"[The upcoming release] has a very strong server-based component to it," he said. "I think they're recognizing this. At the end of the day, BI is all about the data. The challenge is how do I get access to and manage and manipulate it from a centralized source in a desktop manner."

Standalone BI providers like New York-based Information Builders Inc. and South San Francisco-based Actuate Corp. are well prepared to take advantage of accessing BI this way, Rogge said.

Last week, Actuate made available its Spreadsheet Application Platform. Actuate 8 allows companies to create specialized spreadsheet applications that contain server-managed workflow, guided analysis and automated write-back to central data stores. The application essentially allows users to keep their Excel spreadsheet application while providing repeatable processes for finance and centralized control for IT managers.

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