Business Objects tries Web 2.0, gets mixed reviews

Business Objects has been testing prototype Web 2.0 applications on its Web site, although it's getting mixed reviews

Business Objects is inviting customers to try out prototype Web 2.0 applications to enhance its BI (business-intelligence) software, although the tools are getting mixed reviews.

The company has been posting what it calls "BI 2.0" applications on its Business Objects Labs Web site for several months, asking customers to try them out and offer feedback. They resemble what other companies call Web 2.0 programs, using ideas like application mashups and Web collaboration.

This week it posted BI Annotator, which provides a way to combine external data feeds with the structured data in a data warehouse. An agricultural business might combine a feed of local temperatures with internal data about farm crop yields, for example. The idea is to include more "contextual" information to arrive at better business decisions.

Another tool is BI Desktop, for creating small programs, or widgets, that sit on a desktop and display current BI information. Others include the Business Objects Masher for combining online services, and BI Collaborator, a plug-in for Windows Live Messenger that lets users chat and exchange BI data through instant messaging.

The tools are only prototypes and not for production use, and Business Objects said they may or may not be turned into actual products.

Neil Raden, founder of the BI consulting company Hired Brains, said some of the tools show creative thinking, but on the whole he was disappointed. "I think these data mashup capabilities are entertaining, but I don't really see that they have any enduring value," he wrote in a blog posting.

Enterprise software vendors aren't being creative enough, he said. They are drawing too much from Web 2.0 ideas that have proved successful on the Internet instead of coming up with radical new ways to manage the exploding volumes of data that businesses have to deal with.

"Data management in large companies is still rooted in databases and relational data modelling," he said in a telephone interview. "There isn't time to formulate an analysis for everything, but if the data were a lot smarter then it could rearrange itself."

He proposed a data model for BI in which information is not only described, but in which the relationship of data to other data is also revealed, "so you can get to the meaning of things and not just the description of them."

"I'm not talking about [artificial intelligence], but with technology we have today it's possible to build systems that reason on their own," he said. BI software should be able to make observations such as, "I've seen this situation before," or "this is like something else I have seen," or even "'I think what this person really wants is a pricing analysis, I'll go and fetch that information and see if it's what they really need," he said.

Stephen Few, founder of consulting company Perceptual Edge, which specializes in data visualization techniques, was also critical -- although in his blog he tends to take the software industry as a whole to task for its poor interface designs. He called the sample interfaces for BI Desktop "widgets for people who would rather play than work."

"To date, Business Objects, much like most other BI vendors, has not demonstrated even a fundamental understanding of data visualization," he wrote.

Boris Evelson, principal analyst for BI at Forrester Research Inc., had a better impression of the prototypes.

"I think the Query As A Web Service product deserves a special mention," he said via e-mail. "It's a great, easy way to create a query and turn it immediately into a Web Service to be consumed by any other SOA applications. Great tool!"

He also liked BI Annotator and the BI Desktop widgets tool. One of the limiting factors of BI is the need to open a separate application and search for the information required. "Making analytics (via dashboards) available right on the desktop is the right step forward to eliminate that obstacle," he said.

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