Business Objects is set to unveil Business Objects XI (Extreme Insight), the first version of its software following last year's acquisition of Crystal Decisions. The company said the move will completely integrate Business Objects BI software with Crystal Reports.

While the unification of product lines into a single platform is a major innovation, the integration of Business Objects XI with Microsoft Office applications is also a powerful capability, according to Josh Greenbaum, principal analyst at Enterprise Applications Consulting.

"So much of the business world starts in Office. Now users working within an Outlook environment can pop over to reports or get alerts, both very important features," Greenbaum said.

The feature called Live Office will allow users to right-click on an object in an Office application, such as Excel, PowerPoint, Word, or Outlook, and update data or drill down to the data used to create the object.

"You can get the data lineage," said Darren Cunningham, director of data integration product marketing at Business Objects.

The lineage will tell users such things as when the data was last refreshed, what the objects represent, and how formulas were created.

Business Objects also revamped the look and feel of XI by using a Microsoft Office-like interface for formatting and for creating calculations and toolbars.

A dynamic cascading prompt will give users deeper views into how the data was created.

"With dynamic cascading, if you click on a field like State, you can get all the pertinent cities where data came from within the state," said Cunningham.

According to Greenbaum, XI's competitive advantage will also come from the blending of the ability to do ad hoc queries, performance management dashboards, and scorecards with standard reporting typically found in Crystal Reports.

Eventually, this makes the case that customers should be taking a "big platform view" of BI, according to Greenbaum.

"One day you are going to be hungry. Here is a perpetual smorgasbord. Pick what you need now and or pick what you need later," said Greenbaum.

However, Business Objects does not have a corner on creating a single BI architecture. Chief rival Cognos will launch this summer Cognos Series 8, a continuation of Cognos' strategy to also create a single architecture for BI.

According to Karen Williams, vice president of BI for Cognos, its current product also understands that the use of BI is being pushed further down the organisational chart, from top-level executives to the director and manager level.

"Organisations are looking at BI at different levels at both a department level as well as from a cross-process or a cross-functional approach," said Williams.

For example, Cognos' bursting feature takes one instance of a report and at the presentation layer "bursts" out only that part of the report that is relevant to a particular job title.

BI vendors, however, may not face their stiffest competition from each other. Rather, it appears to be coming from the major ERP vendors such as SAP and Siebel Systems, who are embedding BI into their applications.

Cunningham said he understands this but counters with the fact that Business Objects has 15 years of experience as a standalone solution. He also points out that Business Objects offers one platform across all the enterprise applications, not just BI embedded in CRM or in ERP.

"We are like Switzerland -- neutral -- and we can take advantage of all transactional systems," he said.

Business Objects XI is shipping now on Windows. It will be rolled out on all platforms and languages through the first half of 2005.