Yahoo and IBM head for a collision

BI (business intelligence), much like the phrase military intelligence, is an oxymoron that marries two seemingly incongruous ideas to describe a critical function. The vast majority of businesses today have no idea what's happening to their business until it's too late for them to do anything about it. This has always been the case, and in the past it didn't bother most companies. After all, most competitors were as blind as they were, and before the Internet, companies could take a fair amount of time to change, alter, and develop new business strategies.

However, with the arrival of the Internet and new forms of e-commerce, BI has become a critical requirement. And two of the most unlikely competitors -- IBM Corp. and Yahoo Inc. -- are now on a collision course to dominate the emerging area of BI services.

Both companies are approaching this space from completely different starting points. Nevertheless, each has set out on a path that is likely to lead to confrontation.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Yahoo, for its part, has pretty much defined the notion of what a consumer information portal should be. But as we have seen time and again, the consumer space is a very tough business segment, subject to commodity economics. As a result, Yahoo's stock price is depressed as competitors such as America Online Inc. and Microsoft Corp. continue to eat away at its position. In response, Yahoo is now trying to position Corporate Yahoo as a BI portal and has attracted companies such as McDonald's Corp., which has chosen to integrate the portal into its enterprise.

IBM, in Armonk, New York, considers BI to be one of the foundations of its e-business strategy. Today, IBM encourages its customers to buy its applications to create their own portals. But it's also clear that IBM will be combining its offerings with other third-party applications to compete with companies such as Yahoo, which has already signed up nQuire Software Inc., in San Mateo, Calif., as its core provider of BI software.

These are not the only two major competitors in this space. SAS Institute Inc. will roll out BI services in the coming year. Plumtree Software Inc. and MicroStrategy Inc. have already begun to roll out similar services. Microsoft is expected to make a similar play once its Microsoft .NET strategy moves past its current vaporware stage. It's also reasonable to expect that newly combined AOL Time Warner Inc. will get around to this space sometime in the next three years.

What's driving interest in BI services is the pace of Internet business. Companies no longer have the luxury of figuring out what went wrong or right with the business three months to nine months after the fact. Instead, they need a set of tools that can analyze events against a set of specific business parameters in real time then send an alert while there is still time to alter the course of the event. In effect, it's no longer acceptable to tell business executives that the horse is gone long after the barn door has been opened.

Added to nQuire's latest release of its software is the capability of creating agents that monitor specific data points in real time. If a threshold is exceeded, an alert is sent to a business manager. There's nothing overly complex about this, but most other companies in this space have yet to implement a similarly proactive set of tools around their offerings . It's only a matter of time before they do, but for now the nQuire approach gives us a sense of what to expect in this space, especially from Yahoo.

Just think: Someday soon we may have the tools to sidestep the conundrum of wondering what would have happened if they only knew what they already knew when they needed to know it. Who knows, maybe we can even get people to see the phrase business intelligence as something other than an oxymoron.

Michael Vizard is editor in chief of InfoWorld.

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