Microsoft hopes to score with Office add-on

Microsoft extended its business intelligence aspirations this week with the release of a new server-based extension to its Office suite.

Business Scorecard Manager is supposed to make it easier for PC users who aren’t business analysts to create dashboards and scorecards of their organization’s performance from back-end data.

A muscular improvement over the free Office Business Scorecards Accelerator the company released last year, Scorecard Manager offers opportunities to system integrators and ISVs for building custom business intelligence applications.

But according to one industry analyst, it also means a serious challenge to business intelligence companies including Ottawa’s Cognos Inc.

“This is a signal that the market is going to change,” said Dennis Gaughan, who specializes in the performance management market at AMR Research. Cognos, Business Objects and Hyperion have already recognized the popularity of Office (particularly Excel) by executives and made their applications easier to work with it, he said. But the release of Scorecard Manager “raises the stakes in that (they) are competing with the world’s largest software company.”

In the short term they aren’t in danger. But AMR believes they will be hurt in part because Microsoft is pricing Scorecard Manager below their products. Mergers or buyouts are inevitable, he said, with possible suitors including IBM, Oracle and even Microsoft.

Dashboards are the latest buzzword in business intelligence, with manufacturers of almost any software that touches a database including the capability. The idea is to allow the creation of indicators – charts, graphs or tables – to give a snapshot of a company’s performance or a project’s progress.

The indicators can be colour-coded for quick glances, or programmed to send alerts when certain levels have been reached. When more detail is needed the user can delve into the database, extract information and create reports.

North American spending on all performance management-related applications, which include planning, forecasting, business intelligence and analytic software, hardware services, will reach US$22.2 billion this year, according to AMR. The greatest part of that spend, 45 per cent, will be in services.

Scorecard Manager, which displays the dashboards through SharePoint Services, leverages the fact that many workers like to use Microsoft Excel for massaging that data.

For the channel, Office Business Scorecard Manager offers training and installation opportunities, said Gaughan. “For system integrators, this is another tool and opportunity to deliver business intelligence to customers.

“For Microsoft ISVs, it’s a robust set of tools they can take advantage of for presenting information and analytics.”

Elizabeth Caley, a Microsoft Canada senior product manager, said Scorecard Manager will be a “huge services opportunity” for partners.

The price of US$5,000 for the server plus $175 for each user “marks Microsoft’s foray into business intelligence for all (PC) users.”

While Business Scorecard Manager can connect to many databases, it does need SQL Server 2000 with Service Pack 4 and above for its analysis services. It also needs either SharePoint Services (a free download for Windows Server 2003 users) or SharePoint Portal Server 2003. Scorecard Manager only runs on Windows Server 2003, and its Internet Information Services 6.0 component must be enabled.

On Nov. 7 Microsoft will release SQL Server 2005, which Caley said will run Scorecard Manager even better with its improved features.

But the company believes the upcoming Office 12 is where Scorecard Manager will shine best – so much so that a new version of the application will be released when the desktop suite is released next year. It will take advantage of new visualization features in Excel, Caley said.

Gaughan has seen a demo of that combination and was impressed with the integration between Office and scorecards. He believes Microsoft will use Scorecard Manager as a lure to get organizations to upgrade to Office 12 – in fact, in a press release issued Monday for Scorecard Manager, Microsoft has already begun to link the two.

On the other hand, he acknowledged that what he saw was not shipping software and it may take some time for companies to upgrade to Office 12.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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