Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Business Objects Reinvents Itself

I receive a great many press releases from Business Objects. Mostly I swat them away like gnats, on the theory that Business Objects is Business Objects and the details don’t really matter. But they did catch my eye this morning with their announced purchase agreement for Inxight, one of the leading text analysis software vendors.

What made this intriguing to me was that I’ve always thought of Business Objects as providing reporting—that is, access to data--as opposed to the technically sophisticated analytics of a SAS or SPSS. Its high profile acquisitions such as Crystal Reports and the delightful Xcelsius product reflect this. Its backward integration in data preparation (Acta, acquired in 2002) and address processing (Postalsoft, acquired 2006) still fit this mold. So do its moves into enterprise performance management, dashboards and visualization. It’s all about getting, cleaning and distributing data.

But text analysis is different. It involves complex algorithms to interpret data. It’s the province of PhDs and rocket scientists. Yes, the connection with Business Objects is obvious enough—text analysis is another form of data preparation, another way to gather input for the reporting tools. But thinking of it that way is like hooking up a jet engine to a donkey cart. The technology of the engine is much more advanced than the vehicle it’s pulling.

Anyway, all this led me to take a closer look at Business Objects itself. Turns out they’ve been launching a whole new brand identity (in case you also missed that memo, check out the May 2 press release). I could do without the tagline (“Let there be light”—unoriginal yet meaningless) but the general notion seems to be “intelligent information”, which to me means “analytics”.

Viewed from this perspective, the Inxight acquisition makes more sense. Business Objects is repositioning itself away from the commodity businesses of data preparation and reporting to the much sexier region of analytics—the territory of SAS, SPSS, Web analytics, process optimization, Fair Isaac, and others. Some of its other activities, such as an online “data store” and advanced profitability analysis, make more sense in this context. It’s a huge switch for a company like Business Objects and there’s no guarantee they’ll succeed. But it does make sense. Good luck to them.

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