Business Objects SA has been busy. Earlier this month, it started shipping a new version of its Crystal Reports enterprise reporting program, Crystal Reports 2008. Just this week the company unwrapped a new budgeting and planning solution for the mid-market -- Business Objects Edge Planning -- available for all three flavors (Standard, Professional, and Premium) of the SMB-oriented BI suites it announced earlier this year.
These releases build on the flurry of announcements and new product offerings Business Objects trumpeted last month, just weeks after it had been acquired by SAP (see http://esj.com/business_intelligence/article.aspx?EditorialsID=8694).
They’re debuting during an especially chaotic time in the business intelligence (BI) and performance management (PM) markets that have endured $15 billion worth of big-ticket acquisitions this year alone. At the same time, these markets are facing pressure -- particularly on the enterprise reporting front -- from open-source BI tools.
Consider Crystal Reports 2008, which marks the first substantive upgrade of that platform in nearly three years. It debuts four years after Business Objects’ acquisition of the former Crystal Decisions Inc. The release also comes about four years after Microsoft Corp. introduced its own SQL Server Reporting Services..
In addition to Microsoft, this market segment also includes a host of successful open-source reporting solutions, from the Actuate-sponsored BI Reporting Tool (or BIRT) to the productized version of the former JasperReports technology -- JasperSoft -- which is cobbling together a complete BI platform.
Nevertheless, Business Objects officials maintain, the Crystal Reports of today is still the industry’s most dominant enterprise reporting tool. In addition, officials say, Crystal Reports remains a popular -- indeed, a ubiquitous -- embedded solution, with more than 500 OEM customers and about 15 million licenses.
Usability, Interactivity Enhancements
Thanks to a host of usability enhancements -- including a new "what-if" visual interactive capability (courtesy of the Xcelsius technology Business Objects acquired from the former Infommersion) -- Business Objects believes Crystal Reports will remain a formidable competitor for some time to come.
Among the usability improvements: improved interactivity, according to Juliette Sultan, vice-president of information discovery and delivery.
"Our strategy has been really been about focusing on the end user -- the business user, trying to make business intelligence, including reporting, much more appealing," she says. "The key with this release is that we’re really taking reporting to a different level. We’ve integrated stunning visualization within the report itself, including some ‘what-if’ scenario modeling that helps make the report experience extremely interactive for users."
A big reason for Business Objects’ interactivity push is to boost usability, Sultan says. "This is about helping end users to explore their reports and to engage with their reports in a very interactive way. Now they can access multiple data views in the same report, by sorting and filtering, so rather than having to develop 10 reports, they can actually develop one."
What’s more, Sultan says, Business Objects plans to make Crystal Reports even more interactive over time -- focusing, for example, on Web 2.0 technologies such as Adobe Flash and Flex. "We’re playing a lot with [Adobe] Flex not only in terms of the user experience but also the technology to use. We’ve made some nice interactivity enhancements in this release. We’re definitely looking at adding more interactivity in future versions."
Elsewhere in Crystal Reports 2008, Business Objects focused on making it easier for programmers to embed the query and reporting functions associated with Crystal Reports into enterprise applications, both homegrown and packaged. The first step, Sultan says, is the application-specific step; the next step -- i.e., the scheme that Business Objects expects to develop over the next several iterations of Crystal Reports -- is to embed that product in the business process itself.
"There’s quite a bit that we’re looking to do in terms of embedded reporting, being able not just to embed the reports into an application, but into a business process," she says. "Being able from the business intelligence environment to take an application and write back [to it], and not just to see a report embedded on your application forms that you make a decision."
Process-embedded query and reporting should also help drive up BI adoption levels. Call it the rising-tide-that-lifts-all-boats effect -- with the tide in this case being the growing trend to embed BI capabilities of all kinds into application development efforts.
"We went from [a situation where you have] an application with several tabs, and one of the tabs is reporting, but how can you start having the information embedded into the business process? That’s the key question," she says. "For example, imagine a manager approving an expense report, and before approving, there would be information about whether this expense report is coming from one of the top spenders in the company, or whether there were three or more exceptions to the expense policies with the company."
The goal, she says, is nothing less than pervasive BI. "The idea is to make it pervasive so that [the] information shows almost side by side. To be honest, end users will not notice a difference between what is business intelligence and what is the application [itself]. It will just be a very easy way to make decisions."
Bringing Budgeting and Planning to the Midmarket
Data warehousing (DW), BI, and PM players have been trying for years -- even decades in the case of DW vendors -- to crack the midmarket.
Blame it on a market cycle. Every few years, an industry watcher or analyst firm identifies the midmarket as an "huge," "untapped" resource of potential customers and licensing revenues, prompting a bevy of BI vendors to develop mid-market-oriented software packages, pricing schemes, and even services.
This time, BI and PM vendors seem more in earnest than ever, however. Perhaps it’s because they now have more delivery models by which to cater to midmarket customers, from Web architectures to software-as-a-service (SaaS) to hybrid on-premises and SaaS-based solutions.
Consider Business Objects, which earlier this year announced a trio of new mid-market-oriented offerings under its "Edge" brand. The most sophisticated of these packages -- Business Objects Edge Premium Edition -- bundles forecasting and scorecarding capabilities, along with data integration, dashboards, reporting, and a host of other bread-and-butter BI technologies.
Instead of introducing a fourth new Edge offering, Business Objects developed a budgeting and planning solution that customers can use in tandem with its Standard, Professional, and Premium Edge offerings.
"We realized that planning and budgeting customers are a little bit different than BI customers. They’re more [from a] finance or accounting [background]; they’re not the CIO or the head of sales or marketing," says Todd Rowe, head of the mid-market with Business Objects. "We didn’t want to have a price penalty [due to] this additional functionality when what they really want is planning and budgeting. Customers can buy our planning and budgeting product as is, or, if they wish, they can buy it along with any of the three existing products."
SAP Integration, Too
As with its other Edge products, Business Objects says it’s going to provide an upgrade path -- or road map -- from Edge Planning to its enterprise flavor. That road map -- like most of Business Objects’ road maps -- became slightly complicated last month, with the SAP acquisition. Nevertheless, Rowe says, Business Objects plans to announce an integrated road map -- which takes into account not just its own planning solutions (homegrown and inherited) but those of SAP as well -- sometime in Q1 of next year.
"We are finalizing with SAP a product road map that will determine, by [Q1 of 2008] what that [integration] road map [for planning] is," Rowe indicates. "Right now we call it superset planning, where we’re taking the different components from planning products and having one single architecture, one single platform. There will be a migration path for Edge customers. They will be taken care of."
Business Objects -- and parent company SAP -- see a big opportunity in the SMB segment, where -- according to SAP’s figures -- 90 percent of its customers aren’t using packaged BI solutions.
Earlier this year, and in tandem with its SMB BI announcements, Business Objects introduced a number of SAP Rapid Marts -- i.e., turnkey datamarts ("turnkey" in that they can be quickly populated with fresh data from operational systems) optimized for SAP. Rapid Marts are based on similar technology Business Objects inherited from Acta, the former SAP ETL specialist it acquired five years ago.
According to Rowe, this kind of canned connectivity -- via Rapid Marts -- provides a lot of the infrastructure plumbing for SAP’s and Business Objects’ integration planning. "What we need to have is some kind of connector, some kind of bridge, between these product lines [i.e., SAP and Business Objects]," he says. "These [Rapid Marts] give you that plumbing."
Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer based in Athens, Ga. You can contact Stephen via E-mail at email@example.com.