MicroStrategy, Birst bring SaaS BI to the masses

Business intelligence vendors released a spate of product announcements over the past two weeks, all aimed at putting BI tools in the hands of everyday users.

Business intelligence (BI) vendors have been firing off product release announcements over the past two weeks and one unifying theme is clear -- BI tools are being designed with everyday business users in mind.

Gone are the days of complicated BI applications that appeal mostly to an inner circle of IT folks.  Enterprises are clamoring for smart, agile BI that is visual, mobile and accessible to the masses.

“Pick a job, pick an industry, pick a country; it’s the same story,” said Christian Chabot, the CEO of Tableau Software, a Seattle-based BI tools maker. Chabot thinks that “traditional enterprise business platforms” are too expensive, architecture-heavy and inaccessible for everyday users. He added that while more tools today are being created with the masses in mind, there is still more work to be done. “We have not yet reached the golden era of analytics.”

Several companies are offering new applications in pursuit of that golden era, with the biggest announcement coming from MicroStrategy Inc. The software vendor launched Cloud Personal, a free Software as a Service (SaaS) BI product that allows anyone to upload data to the MicroStrategy Cloud, analyze it and then share the results using the Web, social media or iPad.

“A very important driver behind Cloud Personal was the idea of delivering analytics to a mass audience,” said Pedro Arellano, MicroStrategy’s director of product marketing for Cloud Personal.

The free software competes with industry players like Tableau, QlikView and Tibco , companies that already offer powerful visualization tools and free test versions of their products.

“Cloud Personal is really a sales and marketing tactic to expose more people to MicroStrategy, and in that regard it competes with the Tableau Public capability and the QlikView demo capability,” said David Menninger, vice president and research director at San Francisco-based Ventana Research Inc. “Many vendors have implemented much better discovery and visualization capabilities as a result of what Tableau and QlikView and to a lesser extent Tibco are doing.”

Arellano views Cloud Personal as a milestone for MicroStrategy because it represents several themes the company has been highlighting of late -- cloud, social, mobile and visual insight. He believes the new product meets consumer demand for accessibility while making financial sense.

“Consumers can really share processing power and infrastructure," he said. "It makes for a very compelling financial case to go with SaaS-based offerings.”

Arellano also sees the free offering as a way to expose MicroStrategy to “millions of people,” with the hope that the product will spread virally. He hinted that a subscription-based paid version is in the works but added that there is no specific timeline for such a release.

“We think the majority of people will use Cloud Personal, and they’ll want more,” Arellano said.

According to Menninger, a largely untapped market is the root cause of the new developments in BI, especially visualization, which offers a much more simplified look at data through an easy-to-understand graphical interface.

“The industry has been stuck selling and providing products to, say [20% to 25% of the market] by many estimates,” Menninger said. “For the industry to continue growing, they need to find ways to reach that other 70 to 80% of the market, and this is the way to try and do some of that.”

MicroStrategy was not alone in making announcements targeted at business users. QlikView is expanding its mobile operations -- which were previously limited to Apple iOS -- to include Android and Blackberry. A recent report from Stamford, Conn.-based IT analyst firm Gartner Inc. states that 33% of BI functionality will be running on mobile devices by 2013.

Tibco also made a SaaS BI announcement last week, releasing Silver Spotfire 2.0 at its TUCON event in Las Vegas. Spotfire includes a personal edition that comes with a free trial period, similar to MicroStrategy’s new offering.

“I found it kind of amusing that all these announcements came in the same week,” Menninger said.

SaaS BI ready to Birst
San Francisco-based Birst Inc. updated its SaaS BI appliance with the release of Birst 5. Birst says the new "software appliance" is easily scalable, updates automatically and offers the  cost savings and agility of a cloud-based solution without the the data quality and security concerns associated with the cloud.

“I think a virtual machine offering is interesting for organizations that don’t yet trust the cloud,” Menninger said. “Here’s a solution they can deploy in their private cloud.”

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