Yesterday, Microsoft announced that the official release timeframe for SQL Server 2008 R2 would be May of this year. Since a huge proportion of the features new to SQL 2008 R2 are Business Intelligence-related, Microsoft BI users and professionals should be very happy. Ostensibly, Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 will be released concurrently with R2, or very close to it, and the MS BI stack will get its most important refresh in quite a long time.
Reporting Services will have important new data visualization capabilities, “grab and go” reporting and a much more useable Web-based report viewer and management UI. PowerPivot, Microsoft’s exciting new self-service OLAP product, will be ready to go too. And, with SharePoint 2010’s delivery, a new build of PerformancePoint will be part of the mix as well.
But how long will it take before PowerPivot and PerformancePoint 2010 will actually be an option for customers? They won’t be able to use the former’s client component until they upgrade at least some users to Excel 2010, and they won’t be able to use PowerPivot’s server component or the new version of PerformancePoint unless and until they adopt SharePoint Server 2010 and purchase enterprise client access licenses (eCALs) for all users of these BI products.
No matter how dedicated of a Microsoft shop some customers are, the time between release and broad deployment of Office and SharePoint will be non-trivial. Users of competing BI stacks, like IBM/Cognos, Oracle/Hyperion and SAP/Business Objects don’t have this problem, and that creates a competitive disadvantage for Microsoft. By tying much of its BI stack to Office, Microsoft limits its ability to refresh its stack to a frequency of once every three years or so. And because of the lag time between release and adoption, MS BI users get new BI technology after the point in time where it’s cutting edge.
What can Microsoft do? Basing its BI toolset in Office and SharePoint gives it the power of “incumbency” that constitutes a strong competitive position, so divorcing from Office/SharePoint is unlikely. One solution: a more frequent release cycle. This would allow Microsoft BI products to release more often than Office and perhaps allow alternate releases to be compatible with exiting versions of it. This would require greater agility and more investment from Microsoft, in order to do more releases, more quickly. One could argue that the usually-staggered releases of SQL Server and Office already constitute such a scheme, but I would counter-argue that changing the platform without changing the tools on top of it is too infrastructural to address the competitive threat I’m discussing here.
Another possible device to break the logjam would be the cloud. If Microsoft BI products, on the server side, and Office on the (hosted, virtualized) client side were one day all cloud-based, then the upgrade burden would be on Microsoft, instead of its customers, to to carry out. Customers would still need to schedule training for new versions, and might still be slow in doing so. But the lag time would almost certainly shorten, and the BI stack would benefit.
There are probably other possibilities here, but I can’t think of them. Can you? Leave a comment and let me know.