Sunday, June 10, 2012

Culling the Catalog

Not that long ago (OK, that long ago) the BusinessObjects portfolio consisted of just one tool. In the last 10 or so years, that portfolio has become a bit... bloated (it's OK for me to use that word in the same way it's OK for a flight attendant to call another flight attendant "the stewardess word"). While the robust growth of the product count was justified before (BusinessObjects buying Crystal Decisions was HUGELY important and obviously SAP buying BusinessObjects was the right move in that market), SAP has begun to show that it shouldn't continue to support the full breadth of its home-grown and acquired business intelligence catalog.

The first hint at this culling of the herd was the release of Crystal Reports for Enterprise (CRE) with it's BI4 platform update. This new tool looked exactly like Webi and Crystal had a baby and got the best DNA from each parent. The second, and more obvious signal is the eventual convergence of Xcelsius into the Zen product. With these releases SAP has signaled that they recognize just throwing half the product sheet out isn't good enough and that they need to step back and see what customers actually need NOW, not what they needed years ago.

So what do customers want/need? I think SAP has nailed this spot on by focusing on functions and users rather than tools.

  • The core of BI consists of canned reports, currently serviced predominantly by Crystal Reports and Web Intelligence (Webi). CRE is clearly a first stab at converging those two toolsets into something that can be developed by developers in (hopefully) a block or line format with pixel-perfect visualizations from any data source and deliverable in any number of places.
  • Self-service BI used to be the domain of Web Intelligence but quite frankly, it just isn't easy enough to use for most users. Unless you are a power user and live and breath the stuff, you don't want to generate a query and format a report. You want to see something more like Explorer, where you search for "Paris leather sales" and it spits you out a number. Power users want to go deeper, but they also want a more consumer-like experience, and Visual Intelligence (or Visi, part of the Explorer family) is going to make those people very happy. For those power-power users, SAP is also adding Predictive Analysis, something it can tightly integrate with its portfolio and not have to pass money down the line because they're just licensing another vendor's technology.
  • Finally, there are BI applications, which go beyond just delivering data into something featuring more interactivity and extensibility than we've been able to provide before. If Zen can meet its somewhat lofty goals while still allowing non-developers to develop (as Xcelsius does), then I can buy into bringing all of those use cases under one umbrella.
Some of you will (rightly) point out that I've opened a blog about "thinning" the BusinessObjects portfolio by listing 4 new products (CRE, Visi, Predictive Analysis ,and Zen) but that really had to happen. Overextending tools like Webi (which started as self-service and evolved into canned reports) is what got us in this mess in the first place. SAP is basically reinventing their portfolio to solve current problems without tossing aside the investments so many of us have already made into a specific tool.

Are there still open questions? Sure. Where does Exploration Views fit in (for my money, it is squarely between Core BI and Self-Service BI)? How do they invest in the future without letting their current tools die on the vine (as many have accused Xcelsius of doing)? How do they make sure they don't bet on the wrong horse (something something iPads and Flash)? When are they going to get the mobile piece right (they are getting closer but aren't quite there all the way across the platform)? When will Deski actually be blighted from the face of the earth (not soon enough)?

I know some are confused by the direction SAP is taking its BI portfolio, but I think this is just because most people simply haven't bought into SAP's new commitment to renewal. We aren't used to an enterprise vendor willing to invest so heavily into a completely new direction. Will this new direction give them some new license sales in the short term? Sure, but I don't think enough to offset the cost to develop it (most people with Explorer licenses don't even have to pay for Visi). SAP knows where they need to be in order to lead the market in 10 years, and they're willing to buy into that vision early.