Microsoft has begun shipping Office PerformancePoint Server 2007, the company's long-touted take on the business intelligence software market.

The company said the software will allow companies to use a single tool to monitor, analyse and plan business operations.

The performance management application can be used to develop strategies and set goals that can be expressed as metrics and key performance indicators, Microsoft said. Users can access data compiled by the application, and monitor their performance against the metrics, using familiar Office tools like Excel, it said.

"Customers have spent hundred of billions of dollars over the past 15 years for ERP, supply chain management [and] sales force automation," said Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division. "But how can that be channelled to deliver better insight? BI is really only used by 10 percent or fewer information workers today."

Raikes compared the state of business intelligence today to that of word processing 20 years ago, when only a select few workers had access to the software. Today, he said, only a company's "high priests of data" have access to BI and analysis tools.

"Our vision is to bring the powerful capability of BI to all information workers ...to democratise access to critical business insight," he added. "We will revolutionise the economics of BI by making broad deployment possible through a low per-user price point. Microsoft ... will bring BI capabilities to ten times the number of information workers because we deliver BI exactly where they are working every day."

During a conference call announcing the software, Ulf Hilton, group finance manager of Oticon, a Danish hearing aid company, said that his company expects to go live with PerformancePoint in February next year. Oticon chose PerformancePoint because it would offer corporate performance management tools company-wide and because it lets users access data through the familiar Excel interface, he said.

"All our finance people who are contributing to this system use Excel daily," he said. "Excel's existence cannot be eliminated."

In addition to making end users happy, PerformancePoint's support for Excel ensures data integrity and version control, he said. The Excel support should also allow the company to continue using its various home-grown Excel budgeting and reporting modules, he added.