Objects of desire

5 Apr 2005

Business Objects, a fast-growing French software firm that opened a sales and support and shared service centre in Dublin last year, plans to broaden the appeal of business intelligence (BI) software from being simply a niche application used by data specialists to one that’s employed by a broad range of constituents, including employees, consultants, customers and suppliers.

“BI used be a tool for the specialist, the PhD and so on. Today it’s seen as a mission-critical application that everyone in the company needs to do their job,” notes chief marketing officer René Bonvanie, who was in Dublin last month as part of an 80-city roadshow to showcase the firm’s latest offering, BusinessObjects XI.

The culmination of a year’s product development work, XI (standing for extreme insight) aims to combine the Bi strengths of Business Objects with the reporting capabilities of Crystal Decisions, a software firm acquired by Business Objects for US$1.2bn a year ago. In XI, Crystal reports are embedded into the ‘dashboard’, giving users a single view of reports plus the BI data from the Business Objects side. Bonvanie points out that because Crystal is the de facto reporting software worldwide with something like one billion Crystal reports in circulation, it was seen as important to maintain the same look and feel that users are familiar with.

Recognising the prevalence of Microsoft Office within the business community, XI also brings BI directly to Microsoft Office users by embedding BI directly in Office applications and allowing Office documents to be managed in the XI platform. This, for example, allows a user to read a Business Objects XI report from within a PowerPoint document — a potentially useful feature, according to one existing Business Objects customer.

“Our people here all have their own tools such as Excel. The increased ability to use the same information within and Excel and PowerPoint environment is very useful,” says John Brazil, IT manager with the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), formerly the National Disease Surveillance Centre. This organisation uses Business Objects as the reporting system for a new integrated national disease database — the Computerised Infectious Disease Reporting system — that went live last year.

“We needed something that would make information as accessible as possible and yet make sure that the various people accessing the system could only access information that was appropriate to them,” Brazil remarks. He adds that the HPSC now plans to upgrade to XI within the next year.

Another new feature is BI Encyclopedia, a tool that gives users the definition of business terms as well as how to find other reports with related information. A separate feature allows users to engage in collaborative analysis and decision making within dashboards, scorecards and reports. As well as the application itself, much is being made of the integrity of the XI platform itself. Business Objects claims that XI is the only BI platform that is Microsoft Windows Server Data Centre certified for reliability. This makes it particularly suitable for enterprise deployments, says Bonvanie, who feels that “the future of BI is in large-scale deployments”.

The company claims that XI also brings much-needed simplicity to the BI space. “Companies looked to BI to increase their performance but many of them bought small components to give them BI so rather than simplify things they ended up with complex systems,” Bonvanie observes. “XI is not about complexity; it’s about making your BI system simple to maintain and install. It’s also always on, which is critical if it’s going to serve the needs of all business users.”

BI is one of the fastest-growing sectors in enterprise software. In 2003, the worldwide BI tools market was worth US$3.9bn, according to market analyst IDC, which also predicts a compound annual growth rate of nearly 5pc over the next five years. With software revenues of US$925m in 2004 and revenues of US$266.7m in Q4 2004, up 45pc on Q4 2003, Business Objects is rated by IDC as the market leader with a 17.8pc market share. Global customers include AstraZeneca, AA Road Services, British Airways and McDonald’s. In Ireland, Allianz, Bank of Ireland, Eagle Star and Kerry Group as well as several public sector agencies including the HPSC and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland are on its client list.

Despite its large client heritage, the company’s recent growth has been built upon the vision of bringing BI to the mass market: “We want to broaden its appeal to new roles — every industry and function and every level of an organisation,” says Bonvanie. “We believe in BI for the masses.” Rather than concentrate on the 15pc of employees that use BI software, he explains, Business Objects is targeting the 85pc that do not. This will mean gaining more customers within the SME market.

According to Donald MacCormick, vice-president of Analytical Applications, the fact that the company is European rather than American should help this SME quest. “We have by far the biggest BI business in Italy which, similar to Ireland, is a predominately SME market. So, as a company, we understand how to attack these SME markets that I think gives us an advantage in markets such as Ireland’s.”

But do small businesses really want or need BI software? “When businesses are really small the guys that run it have all the information in their head but even in a business like that, the ability to ask ‘How much have I got in stock?’, ‘How much did I sell yesterday?’ — the stuff that you can’t keep in your head because it’s too real time — is critical,” argues MacCormick.

However, with prices for deployments starting in the low thousands rather than the hundreds of euro it seems very likely that, despite its avowed mission to bring BI to the common or garden SME, Business Objects will continue to do most of its business among medium-sized to large organisations — in the Irish market at least.

Pictured were Donald MacCormick, vice-president of analytical applications at Business Objects, with chief marketing officer René Bonvanie at the launch of Business Objects XI in Dublin recently

By Brian Skelly