RESEARCH & RESOURCES

Business Objects Reloads Mid-Market Product Line

The rules of the mid-market game are changing, but Business Objects thinks it has an ace up its sleeve -- its reporting expertise

With new releases of two of its signal SME offerings on tap this week, Business Objects -- now an SAP AG company -- hopes to build on its success in the small to mid-size company market. The rules of the mid-market game are changing, but one thing hasn't changed: SME customers -- much like their larger enterprise brethren -- are still wild about reporting. It's the bedrock of BI, after all.

That's why Business Objects -- which spent more than $800 million five years ago to acquire one of the best-known reporting brands on the market -- thinks it has an ace up its sleeve. With the release this week of revamped versions of its Crystal Reports Server and Business Objects Edge products, officials are pulling out all of the stops to burnish the company's mid-market credentials.

Prior to SAP's acquisition, Business Objects fired off several successful mid-market offerings. It released Crystal Reports Server (a version of Crystal Reports that was packaged, tweaked, and configured for SMEs), Business Objects Edge bundle (a mid-market-ready version of its Business Objects enterprise software stack), and launched several initiatives (including its Business Objects Rapid Marts -- basically, out-of-the-box data marts that provide turnkey integration with popular data sources such as SAP). James Thomas, vice-president of business intelligence tools -- and long-time Crystal Reports point-person -- with Business Objects, claims that his company knows SME customers: seven-eighths of its customer base is technically part of the mid-market.

"[Crystal Reports Server and Business Objects Edge] have been two of the most successful product launches in our history in terms of growth, and they continue to attract [mid-market] users who need a best-of-breed tool but can't afford best-of-breed pricing," he says. The products have done so in the face of competition from Microsoft Corp. (with its SQL Server-based BI stack) and the open source software (OSS) community.

"When users do the math, what they find is that we're not that much more expensive than some of these other products that have come along in the meantime," Thomas says, "The [lessons] we've [learned] with Crystal Reports Server we've applied to Edge. We've had over 6,000 customers [buying] these products over the last few years."

There are plenty of new features in Crystal Reports Server 2008 and Business Objects Edge 3.0, Thomas points out. In the Crystal Reports reload, for example, there's a new Web-based administration console; the purpose isn't necessarily to simplify things for Crystal Reports administrators, according to Thomas -- it's to give users access to new (and hitherto unavailable) flexibility. "If you can configure your own desktop to add people and security rights just by turning them off and on [in a console], wouldn't that be easier? Wouldn't that be better?"

Business Objects also streamlined the Crystal Reports deployment experience, according to Thomas, who maintains that rolling out Crystal Reports Server is already comparatively simple thanks to the absence of enterprise amenities such as fault-tolerant or scalable compute resources. "The time-to-value that people get [with Crystal Reports 2008] is a matter of days and not months, and that's very important to [mid-market] customers."

Elsewhere, Crystal Reports Server 2008 bundles a new connector for Salesforce.com in addition to standard ODBC, JDBC, and XML connectivity. Business Objects also announced a new CrystalReports.com "extender" designed to help connect on-premises Crystal Reports Server with software-as-a-service CrystalReports.com.

"It's a technology today that allows an administrator to set it up, but we want to do a lot more with it [in the future]. We have a lot more big plans for it. That's been a pretty important part of our product line. Right now, people can take their Crystal Reports and use them at CrystalReports.com. We want to let them integrate those two experiences," Thomas indicates.

On the Edge tip, Thomas talks about a raft of new improvements -- starting with an SAP Integration Kit. That's a feature that Business Objects first delivered as part of its Enterprise XI software stack, he says. It's now available as part of Edge at no extra charge.

"One of the challenges in the past has been our Web Intelligence connectivity directly into SAP sources. With the Business Objects XI release earlier this year, one of the key features was improved SAP connectivity, as well as integration with the portals and the rest of the SAP environment," he notes. "Edge improves that integration pretty significantly. We were working with that before the acquisition happens, so this isn't exactly a post-acquisition development, but it's important, regardless."

Business Objects also announced new RapidMart flavors for Edge, Thomas says. It first shipped an SAP RapidMart several years ago -- that's one of the benefits of its acquisition six years ago of former SAP ETL specialist Acta; not an anticipation -- much less a result -- of its acquisition by SAP. The company now offers Oracle- and PeopleSoft-ready RapidMarts, too.

Reading the BI Reporting Tea Leaves

When Business Objects spent $800 million for Crystal Decisions five years ago, enterprise reporting was both foundational and largely best-of-breed: SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS), the Actuate/OSS BI Reporting Tool, Jasper Reports (not to mention JasperSoft), and other affordable (and mostly OSS) products either weren't yet available, or hadn't yet developed significant traction in the enterprise reporting space.

That quickly changed. Microsoft delivered SSRS about six months after first Crystal Decisions and then the former Brio Software were acquired by, respectively, Business Objects and Hyperion Solutions Corp. Meanwhile, Actuate BIRT, JasperReports, Pentaho, Mondrian, and a raft of other OSS initiatives continued to evolve (see http://www.esj.com/business_intelligence/article.aspx?t=y&EditorialsID=7871).

The upshot, experts claimed, was that an enterprise reporting segment that had once been the province of best-of-breed tools (from Crystal, Brio, Actuate Corp., Information Builders Inc., and others) was fast becoming commoditized. Microsoft's success with SSRS -- which received a thorough going-over (after first getting an iterative Service Pack update) in SQL Server 2005 -- led some to question the very future of best-of-breed reporting (see (http://www.adtmag.com/article.aspx?id=18433).

Few people can claim to know as much about reporting as Thomas: he headed the Crystal product line at the former Crystal Decisions Inc. and occupied the same post -- with expanded responsibilities -- at Business Objects, too, a hat he still wears. He has a dog in the race, to be sure, but when it comes to reporting, Thomas likes to argue that some things are simply true. That's why even though SSRS, BIRT, JasperReports, and other technologies have evolved into relatively mature offerings, Thomas believes there's still a lot of work to be done in the area of enterprise reporting.

"We still very much see reporting as a foundational technology [where] not necessarily everybody has it finished and not everybody has it right. It's still a growth market. IDC is predicting 10 percent growth for reporting!" Thomas argues. "It's not like it's done. It's not like it is commoditized. It's a fundamental requirement that companies need. It's about reporting and BI. You need both. Whether you buy them both, via our Edge package, or via Crystal Reports Server, there's still a standalone requirement for a good reporting tool."

It wasn't completely smooth sailing. Even Business Objects felt some pressure, developing a Crystal Reports Server package that allowed it to market Crystal at a lower price point -- and which helped it blunt Microsoft's success with SSRS. Four years after SSRS first debuted, Thomas claims, Crystal Reports is doing just fine -- even in the OEM and embedded spaces, where SSRS (a free deliverable) might otherwise have sapped some of its strength.

"Our OEM business remains a very strong part of the company. Some of the economics have changed. Where component reporting was necessarily a big market, we along with others have really tried to make that a much less costly experience for developers and ISVs to embed reporting," Thomas indicates.

"There are more embedded run time engines for these reports within applications. This is where I think you'll see some of the open source guys really trying to attack as well," he continues. "Probably the only place we really see them [either SSRS or OSS on the embedded tip] is when [customers] try to go after a Java-based application or a .Net-based application. Whereas with us, it doesn't matter to us which [environment customers] want to use. We continue to support both Java and .Net, so you can use whatever you want to use."

Consider report authoring, which has changed drastically over the last half-decade. Building reports used to be the responsibility of a dedicated report developer, after all, but Microsoft's acquisition of the former ActiveViews -- and with near-contemporaneous adjustments by Business Objects (with improvements to its Crystal and Xcelsius technologies), Cognos Inc. (with enhancements to ReportNet), and other players -- shifted the focus to business users. Microsoft shipped a Report Builder component (based on the ActiveViews technology) in SSRS 2.0 that was designed to let business users -- not report developers -- construct their own report views. Other players followed suit.

With SSRS 2.0 almost three years old, and with Xcelsius and other technologies growing similarly long in the tooth, has the report authoring problem been licked? Thomas doesn't think so.

"There's a lot of work to be done there, still. If you look at our Edge product line, there are a couple of tools we have that let you take the next step. Our Web Intelligence, that's always been more of the business analyst-type tool, but Xcelsius is also part of Edge; it's a much more drag-and-drop tool, kind of like using Microsoft Paint versus having to build a report [via traditional tooling]," he comments.

One good thing, he suggests, is that all vendors seem to be adopting ease-of-use models that stress familiar interfaces (e.g., car dashboards) and point-and-click/drag-and-drop user interactivity. "There's a lot of work going on with how we navigate through BI data in particular. Whether it's with traditional [models] like reporting [or via other usage paradigms]," Thomas concludes. "Our big investment area is continuing to push the ease of use for non-BI users -- people who will never know they're using BI; sort of an emphasis on zero-training. That's where we believe the industry is heading."

[Editor's note: SAP and Business Objects aren't the only major vendors with new product releases to tout. Oracle Corp. last week announced a new version of its EPM suite -- which draws on technologies from its Hyperion and Siebel acquisitions. Meanwhile, Cognos -- now an IBM company -- signed a deal with data warehouse appliance specialist Dataupia. We'll discuss these developments in a future issue.]

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