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Microsoft’s data visualization coup

The acquisition of ProClarity two weeks ago is Microsoft’s most ambitious move to date into the BI front-end tools segment. The move augments the software giant’s SQL Server-based business intelligence stack with data visualization capabilities that rival those of Business Objects, Cognos and MicroStrategy. More to the point—and regardless of how Microsoft spins it—it marks a departure from the back-end-centric (and notionally partner-friendly/vendor-neutral) BI strategy on which the software giant first rode to BI prominence.

According to a number of industry watchers, Microsoft-oriented niche player ProClarity has a more compelling data visualization solution set than many of the BI pure-plays. Cindi Howson, a principal with BIScorecard.com and a member of TDWI’s research collaborative, says ProClarity’s visualization technology—which she stresses isn’t in the league of specialty vendors such as Tableau Software or Spotfire—is nevertheless impressive. “Their decomposition tree is fairly unique—users are less likely to get ‘lost’ drilling compared to other vendors’ drill techniques. The heat mapping on charts is good. Some of these capabilities are better than what you get from the leading BI suite vendors.”

An industry analyst who spoke on background makes the point even more starkly: With the exception of SAS Institute, the visualization tools proffered by ProClarity surpass those of the major BI pure-plays. Specialized vendors such as Tableau Software and Spotfire are in a separate league, however. And ProClarity’s visualization tools suffer from common problems, such as poor formatting of results and arbitrary 3D. Nevertheless, the analyst concedes, Microsoft could plausibly leverage its new visualization assets to compete against the BI vendors.

Mark Madsen, a decision support manager with online retailer Harry & David who—like BIScorecard.com’s Howson—moonlights as a TDWI research collaborator, agrees. ProClarity isn’t “at the same level as other visualization vendors, but they are more sophisticated than what Microsoft offers today. It looks to me like this [acquisition] positions them to compete better in the OLAP and reporting space.

“I don't have any hands-on with ProClarity products, so I'd have to defer to someone else's opinion regarding how robust and competitive they are for reporting, OLAP, or ad-hoc,” he says. The products are “definitely more off-the-shelf than what is being offered with Reporting Services and Analysis Services.”

In this respect, Madsen says, the acquisition could have a chilling effect on other would-be ProClarity’s—that is, companies which market solutions designed to complement (or otherwise exploit) Microsoft’s SQL Server underpinnings.

“This probably chokes off a lot of development that would otherwise be going on in the Microsoft ISV community related to BI. Every time Microsoft enters a market where their partners are working, the cold Seattle death wind hits the revenue streams and startup funding in the affected market segment,” he notes.
So why has Microsoft risked a BI strategy that served it well? Madsen sees a couple of potential explanations. “I guess in this case [Microsoft] didn't see enough of a community driving things and probably saw an opportunity to take revenue going to the mainstream BI vendors.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a contributing editor for Enterprise Systems. He can be reached at stephen.swoyer@spinkle.net.

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