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Maestro Pits Microsoft Against its Business Intelligence Competitors

Microsoft sends a shockwave through the business intelligence market with its new BPM and scorecard product called “Maestro”

Microsoft Corp.’s aspirations in the business intelligence (BI) space have long been the subject of intense speculation. But until recently, the software giant seemed content to emphasize a partner-first approach to doing BI.

Last week, however, Microsoft sent a shockwave through the BI market, announcing beta availability of a new business performance management (BPM) and scorecard product, code-named “Maestro.” Like several of Microsoft’s client BI tools, Maestro, a product of Microsoft’s Information Worker Business group, is tightly coupled with the Office productivity suite.

Microsoft has introduced BI client tools in the past, but Maestro takes the software giant further afield from its own platform-based BI strategy. “Maestro is only the first of a series of business intelligence products for users of Information Worker products,” according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

Microsoft as BI Enabler

Microsoft has traditionally focused on delivering a SQL Server BI stack that provides the underpinnings (OLAP, data mining, ETL, and reporting capabilities)—and not much more—of a full-fledged BI product. Instead, partners such as ProClarity Corp. and Panorama Software Ltd. have helped to flesh out Microsoft’s BI stack, delivering reporting and analytic solutions that tap—as well as extend—SQL Server’s own capabilities.

With Maestro, it looks as though Microsoft will be competing more directly with these companies, along with entrenched BPM players such as Cognos Inc. and Hyperion Solutions Corp., among others. Indeed, Microsoft’s description of its Maestro technology could just as easily have been written by any of these companies. “Maestro … empowers CFOs, sales managers, R&D managers, CIOs, and other decision-makers to increase … [the] predictability and transparency [of their businesses] by achieving greater visibility into business and financial trends as they are going on,” the spokesperson says.

Microsoft’s partners don’t see it that way, of course. Panorama, for example, is prepping a new offering, dubbed “Symphony,” that—like the company’s existing reporting, analytic, and scorecard solutions—enhances and extends Meastro instead of SQL Server. Panorama unveiled Symphony on the same day Microsoft touted Maestro, and—while the company undoubtedly hoped to piggyback on Maestro’s PR to gain exposure for its own release—Panorama also probably wished to forestall speculation that Microsoft’s BPM entry was targeted at its own bread-and-butter market segment.

It’s likely that the shipping version of Maestro will fall short (in features and functionality) of best-of-breed offerings from Panorama, ProClarity, and others. The BPM features Microsoft touts (such as KPI capabilities and other scorecard essentials) are far from earth-shattering, after all. In its marketing materials, Microsoft has been careful to position Maestro as a platform for ISVs and systems integrators, too. In the company's vision, ISVs and systems integrators can tap Maestro to incorporate support for scorecarding or limited BPM capabilities into their own applications.

As Microsoft itself might put it, the BPM pie is plenty big enough for everyone. “Partners will have the opportunity to quickly expand their business into new areas with minimal investment … we estimate a ratio of 5:1 in terms of how many dollars partners will be able to make selling services on top of their solutions,” the Microsoft spokesperson told us. “So we think there's definitely a huge market opportunity here for our partners as well as Microsoft.”

Inexorable Improvement

At the same time, some industry watchers say, Maestro might be “just good enough” for a large number of enterprise users—particularly for customers heavily invested in Microsoft’s technology stack.

“If history is any indicator, if [Microsoft is] committed to the space, they will take their time gaining market share on volume and steadily improving the product line,” says Cindi Howson, a principal with consultancy Analytic Solutions Know-how (ASK), and a veteran industry-watcher.

As a case in point, Howson cites the slow, inexorable improvement of Microsoft’s own Analysis Services offering. “First release was only moderately useable, [with] serious security issues. Second release back in 2000 had major improvements—and since those five years, they've climbed over Cognos [PowerPlay] and Hyperion Essbase, not necessarily by strong market push, but it seems to me, [by] a lot of grass-root [and departmental] implementations where people just play with it because it's free [and/or] embedded.”

Another example is Microsoft’s own Reporting Services add-on for SQL Server. When the company first announced Reporting Services, it was content to position that product as a solution for developers who needed to incorporate reporting features into custom applications, or for ISVs and integrators who wished to do the same with shrink-wrapped products or services. Since then, Microsoft’s ambitions have soared: The software giant now claims that the version of Reporting Services bundled with SQL Server 2005 can compete with best-of-breed tools such as Crystal from Business Objects SA. To some extent, Maestro itself is an example of this same process of inexorable improvement. Microsoft’s inaugural BPM offering, after all, isn’t without antecedents of its own. Three years ago, Microsoft shipped its first SQL Server BI Accelerator, a free tool users could tap to build BI analytic solutions on top of SQL Server. Microsoft’s inaugural BI Accelerator proved to be popular—the software giant claimed 10,000 downloads in the first year alone—so it was followed by several similar offerings.

Last year, however, Microsoft upped the ante, introducing a scorecard accelerator that—one prominent industry analyst suggested—was (for all intents and purposes) an analytic application unto itself.

“The Business Intelligence Scorecards Accelerator is an analytic application and could represent a vehicle for Microsoft to test the waters toward becoming a BI solutions vendor,” wrote Mike Schiff, a senior analyst with consultancy Current Analysis Inc., shortly after Microsoft announced its new scorecard entry. At the time, Schiff counseled, “Microsoft must tread carefully and walk a fine line between cooperating and competing with its BI solutions partners.”

Howson, for her part, suggests that the software giant’s first scorecard entry was far from a threat to anyone. To some extent, ProClarity and other BI vendors have known what’s coming. Given its history, however, and its long-term strategies, Microsoft could make things interesting. “[Microsoft] has slowly been making moves into the front-end BI space, so partners like ProClarity have made it a point to differentiate into analytic applications,” she says.

A Microsoft spokesperson said officials were unavailable to comment at press time.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with 20 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence, data warehousing, and analytics for almost 15 years. Swoyer has an abiding interest in tech, but he’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems technology vendors never, ever want to talk about. You can contact him at [email protected].

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