Microsoft has started firing the first volleys in its forthcoming war for the business intelligence space, as it attempts to position itself as a trusted partner in the enterprise rather than simply as a technology provider.
Although the software giant is coming relatively late to a market that has been established for more than a decade, it has been making increasingly aggressive noises about business intelligence (BI) since the end of last year.
The sector's growing importance in Redmond was also highlighted by its decision to host an inaugural BI event at its headquarters in May, which was attended by 3,000 delegates. This was used as a forum to unveil a coherent BI strategy for the first time, which revolves around the concept of "BI for the masses".
"This is the first year that Microsoft has communicated relatively well around BI and it will be a year when it tries to raise the volume in terms of what it is delivering," said Andreas Bitterer, a vice president of research at Gartner. "It's talking a lot about BI, whereas in the past, it was driven mainly by Windows and its server products."
According to Bitterer, the SQL Server database, which acts as a foundation to Microsoft's BI strategy, has now had its profile raised "even within Microsoft, and Steve Ballmer [its chief executive] is talking about it now while, in the past, he didn't." As Bitterer noted: "It seems that there's been a shift of priorities in Microsoft."
Such a shift in priorities would seem to indicate that Microsoft is trying to make itself more relevant to a business audience, in order to raise its profile at board level.
Dale Vile, a research director at Freeform Dynamics, explained that, while most people use Microsoft Office on the desktop, it tends to be thought of "as a techie, infrastructure thing".
"But Microsoft wants to be more visible and for people to appreciate it more at the business-value level. It's trying to go up the business value stack and BI is a good way to do that," Vile said.
This is not least because one of the biggest drivers of business satisfaction with IT is the ease with which it provides access to relevant information; which means that, in many instances, BI is the face of IT. This is reflected in various surveys undertaken by Gartner over the past two years, which indicate that the technology is number-one on the agenda of chief information officers, and that it currently constitutes a multi-billion dollar market.
"So it's important to Microsoft. It wants to be seen to be helping the business because it equates to account control and cross- and up-selling potential. The aim is to become a trusted partner, but Microsoft is behind the curve on that. It generally hasn't had that relationship with the business, so it doesn't have the same level of board presence as, say, IBM," Vile said.
Therefore, the goal is to build on core products such as its Office desktop productivity suite and SharePoint collaboration and content management tools to create a valuable future revenue stream. "BI represents a layer of premium-value business, which is an important difference between run-rate growth and driving growth," explained Vile.
But there are other dynamics that are pushing Microsoft to try and exploit the market. Over the past five years, companies in general, and large enterprises in particular, have increasingly been..