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Microsoft's strategy of making BI more pervasive should not be underestimated, as its ubiquity on the desktop and enhanced range of business intelligence solutions gives it a very strong proposition to realise this vision, particularly for small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs). The challenge for other BI vendors lies in convincing SMBs that they need more than Microsoft's BI tools for reporting and analysis.

In contrast, the enterprise market has long been dominated by established BI players such as Business Objects, Cognos and SAS. Undeniably, Microsoft poses a threat to these vendors who are recognising the need to simplify their solutions for a broader audience, and are broadening their portfolio through acquisition.

In acknowledgement of Microsoft's dominance of data analysis for the masses, these vendors are offering tighter integration with Excel. At the same time, they are pursuing an enterprise standardisation strategy by offering a range of solutions - from complete, sophisticated BI platforms to simple self-service operational dashboards. They are also offering lower cost of deployment options such as Cognos Now!, which is available either as a hardware appliance or a software as a service model (SaaS).

While Microsoft challenges the dominance of the pure-play BI vendors, enterprise vendors such as Oracle and SAP are extending their business intelligence capabilities through acquisition, and up-and-comers such as Information Builders, QlikTech, Spotfire (recently acquired by TIBCO) and Tableau are driving innovation in areas such as user driven and collaborative analytics, data visualisation and in-memory data analysis.

This new class of vendors is certainly creating added value for business users who can now quickly discover and explore new insights in a visual environment. Although this user-driven, self-service capability is superior to the tabular analysis associated with traditional business intelligence tools, the sophistication of some of the best of breed data visualisation tools mean it is more likely to be used by the expert users, offering them a new way to explore data.

While some of the larger business intelligence vendors are offering data visualisation, it generally is not on a par with what is available from Spotfire or Tableau, and is more often just a dashboard visualisation of an Excel spreadsheet without sophisticated visual analysis capabilities. Data visualisation is a key requirement to enhancing data analysis, so we can expect these capabilities to become more widespread in BI solutions.

BI is no longer the exclusive domain of a few users in large enterprises that have had the budgets to spend on complex and expensive traditional tools. These enterprises can now benefit from consolidating and standardising their BI solutions to address their requirements while opening them up to more users.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's continued investment in the market also opens up BI to SMBs, which can look to both Microsoft and the small, innovative vendors for capabilities that enable them to better measure performance and improve business efficiencies, in the same way as their large enterprise counterparts.

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