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IBM battling to change perception of Cognos Analytics BI platform

While some see IBM's BI suite as being too complicated and expensive for citizen data scientists, the company is adding updates to try and attract the modern user.

While IBM's traditionally popular Cognos Analytics BI suite remains a powerful system, some say it's not for everyone anymore.

The business intelligence platform was viewed for decades as a leading product, one that met the needs of data analysts well. But as analytics went mainstream, the need for trained data scientists to deploy analytics software lessened, and everyday users became more versed in the ways of BI, views of IBM's analytics technology changed.

Now, however, IBM is fighting back.

On Thursday, addressing concerns that led to an impression among some that the Cognos Analytics on Cloud platform is behind the times, IBM released Cognos Analytics version 11.1.3. The latest rollout, which according to IBM is designed to give small and medium-sized businesses better access to IBM's BI tools, targets pricing and ease of use.

It was in 2015, when IBM transitioned Cognos from version 10 to version 11, that IBM first began addressing its image among some as being good for large enterprises but not user-friendly for everyone.

"We released 11.0 in 2015 and spent a lot of time on the road at conferences banging the drum that this is not your grandfather's Cognos, that this is the next iteration," said Kevin McFaul, senior product manager of business analytics at IBM. "The capabilities are still there, but it was enhanced to target the new line of business users. Our competition went to market on 'Cognos is too complex' and we've done a lot of work to try and correct that perception."

IBM's release of Cognos Analytics version 11.1.3 comes amid what analysts view as a challenging time for the Cognos Analytics BI platform.

Analysts said that the suite's technological capabilities remain among the most effective, yet despite IBM's best efforts it's a product viewed as primarily aimed at enterprises with budget to spend and IT specialists to spare. It is not seen as a platform that fits the needs of the new wave of data users, citizen data scientists.

IBM Cognos market activity by the year

Gartner's proprietary "Magic Quadrant" ranking system in February 2019 dropped IBM to "Niche Player" after ranking it a "Visionary" the previous three years.

A decade ago in 2009, and up through 2015, Gartner labeled IBM as a "Leader."

"IBM was a leader in traditional BI, but it took them a long time to respond to [changes in the market]," said Rita Sallam, a VP analyst at Gartner. "Cognos lost a lot of traction, but they've made promising investments in augmented intelligence, which we see as the next phase of BI."

"They've now introduced a promising new version of the product," she added.

The Cognos Analytics BI platform has many of the same capabilities as other advanced analytics suites, including natural language processing (the old Watson analytics system was recently rolled into Cognos), data visualization and multi-cloud connectivity. And IBM continues to add features through updates, introducing a host of AI-powered tools in the fall of 2018 with IBM Cognos 11.1 and now addressing pricing and ease of use in 11.1.3.

Even before the latest update, the Cognos Analytics BI platform remained robust for those who were already IBM customers.

But there's also been a downside to the Cognos Analytics BI story, one analyst said has made it difficult for IBM to win new customers.

"Historically, it's been an IT-centric implementation," said Rick Sherman, founder of Athena IT Solutions in Maynard, Mass. "It can manage metadata and share, but there are lots of parts to the architecture to make it effective.

"You'll look elsewhere if you don't have the skills," he continued.

Another potential drawback has been IBM's perceived relatively slow pace of innovation.

While Microsoft provides monthly updates to Power BI, and vendors such as MicroStrategy are starting to embed analytics into applications beyond their traditional BI platforms, IBM's most recent additions -- even the ones unveiled this week -- are ones many of their competitors already possess.

"It has most of the features that are required, but the competition went ahead more than Cognos," said Boris Evelson, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Its strength is that it's delivering analytics at scale, and it's introducing some of the more advanced features -- it has a conversational user interface, and the advanced analytics it's introduced is a strength."

"But a weakness is the pace of innovation is not as fast as its competitors," he said.

One of the specific issues that may have held the Cognos Analytics BI platform back is that IBM invested heavily in Watson before the company abandoned Watson analytics as a stand-alone product and added it to the Cognos Analytics BI suite.

"Watson set them back a couple of years -- Watson analytics didn't have the completeness Cognos had," said Doug Henschen, analyst at Constellation Research. "The hope is that they catch up."

Henschen, however, noted that IBM now is giving the Cognos Analytics BI platform more attention, which could help reverse the sense that IBM is lagging in the analytics sphere.

They've updated their story significantly in the last 18 months. There are signs that they're getting hip to the market demands of the day to get customers what they want and where they want it.
Doug HenschenAnalyst, Constellation Research

"They've updated their story significantly in the last 18 months," Henchen said. "There are signs that they're getting hip to the market demands of the day to get customers what they want and where they want it."

The new release appears to be further evidence of IBM's commitment to the Cognos Analytics BI platform, and to making it a suite not only for giant enterprise but also for the citizen data scientist.

"It was designed around how to empower end users and help them understand their data," McFaul said.

Pricing for Cognos Analytics version 11.1.3 is in three tiers, beginning at $15 per user, per month for the Standard Edition, $35 per user, per month for the Plus Edition, and $70 per user, per month for the Premium Edition. All the versions are available on the IBM Marketplace and can be purchased directly from the site and used via the cloud, IBM said.

Whether the market takes notice of the changes, however, and whether IBM can regain what it has lost in recent years, remains to be seen.

A decade ago, IBM had a 14.6% market share of vendor revenues, according to Gartner. By 2017, though statistics vary slightly among sources and the BI software market has become more fragmented in general over time, IBM's market share had dropped.

"Their challenges don't stem from the product," Sallam said. "It's their go-to-market strategy, how to sell beyond their installed base, how to attract new buyers. They've put in place a plan to do that, but we'll see how well they execute on those plans."

"Hearts are harder to change than the product," she said.

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Given its most recent updates, how can IBM revitalize its Cognos analytics product?
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