Different and divergent expectations for Crystal

Microsoft’s Reporting Services and the Eclipse BI Reporting Tool project aren’t the only challenges faced by perennial reporting champ Crystal Reports. Crystal must also grapple with questions about its future, thanks in large part to the acquisition of its parent company 2 years ago by Business Objects SA for more than $800 million.

BO has tried to balance Crystal’s traditional focus on best-in-class enterprise reporting with its own desire to more tightly couple the Crystal technologies to its eponymous BI suite. Many longtime Crystal users are wary of the strategy.

“We are a little concerned about the integration of the product lines between [Business Objects] and Crystal,” says programmer and longtime Crystal hand Joel Klein. “Only time will tell.” Like many organizations, Klein’s employer is a Crystal-centric shop. “We mostly use Crystal as a reporting tool. We have hundreds of reports going out daily. We have integrated it into applications, but we primarily use it as a strict reporting tool.” He’s looked at other reporting solutions, Klein admits, but he still thinks Crystal is “the easiest and most powerful to use.”

This is, by and large, the comportment of many Crystal vets. Take Peter Tyler, a database programming consultant with The Lutheran World Federation, who admits to some dissatisfaction, mostly concerning support and pricing, dating back to before Business Objects took the helm. “Crystal began to market their Web services software via Crystal Enterprise and threatened to discontinue the built-in compiler in [Crystal Reports 8.0],” Tyler says. “What they did not say was that although the purchaser received a license for five concurrent Web users, the cost for a further five-user license was almost $10,000!”

Tyler also cites the evolution of Crystal’s free, unlimited e-mail support policy, which the former Crystal Decisions amended on several occasions, and which (with Business Objects at the helm) has since given way to a flat per-incident fee. “Now one is supposed to pay Business Objects [approximately] $300 to report their bugs. This I refuse to do,” he says.

It’s mainly an issue of two very different, and perhaps divergent, expectations. Many users, particularly developers, are content to use Crystal Reports in support of traditional tasks, such as operational reporting and embedded reporting. Business Objects, for its part, wants to improve the integration between the Crystal technologies and its flagship BI stack. That makes sense, given the BI giant’s $840 million stake.

For longtime Crystal hands like Tyler, this translates into a kind of skeptical watchfulness. He cites Crystal Reports XI, which Business Objects shipped earlier this year: Tyler concedes the XI release was far from disruptive but from the perspective of some users, it didn’t bring much in the way of new functionality to the table, either.

“I downloaded the trial version of Crystal XI, but the interesting new features since V8.5, such as the Repository, the dynamic updating of parameters, and others, didn’t work as promised because, apparently, I also needed to install Business Objects.”

Not surprising, other Crystal vets—particularly those who work more consistently with BI technologies (and particularly with Business Objects BI tools)—seem encouraged by what Business Objects has wrought.

“It seems to provide a few features which have been demanded for a long time by Crystal users, including one which will be of major benefit to a lot of my clients,” says Duncan Sutcliffe, a U.K.-based Crystal consultant and developer, ahead of the XI release. Sutcliffe, a Crystal Reports XI beta user, lauded the new product’s revamped user interface, which “will make the development environment feel less outdated.”

Elsewhere, Sutcliffe enthused about the synergies between the (almost completely integrated) Crystal and Business Objects product lines.

“When combined in a future release, we should have a very flexible and powerful meta-layer tool. It’s actually an exciting time when we consider what could be offered in a unified product suite,” he concludes.

Back to feature: Business Intelligence Through a Clouded Crystal

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a contributing editor for Enterprise Systems. He can be reached at [email protected].