The old axiom "a picture is worth a thousand words" certainly holds true in the world of business intelligence (BI) and data analysis. Imagine a cross-tab grid of numbers on several pages of a printed document. Now imagine a visual presentation of that data, perhaps a well-formed pie chart with cutouts that depict the important data. Most of us have to stare at a number grid for some time before we make sense of it, but our brains quickly recognize visually displayed trends and patterns.

Microsoft positions Excel as its standard front-end BI tool. Unfortunately, Excel falls well short of traditional BI tools when it comes to sophisticated visual presentation of data. Excel has been a great instrument for BI proofs-of-concept and simple production systems, but I don't believe it fully meets users' BI needs in many complex, real-world BI/OLAP solutions. Microsoft hopes to fill the BI/OLAP gap with this fall's release of Microsoft Data Analyzer, which the company is positioning as an "upstanding citizen" in the family of Microsoft Office XP products. Data Analyzer will offer innovative graphical data-analysis and visual capabilities that will help business users quickly identify new business opportunities, trends, and issues.

Data Analyzer will offer visualization capabilities and graphical views that let users rapidly identify opportunities and trends, find business anomalies, and review multiple data sets in one interface. Data Analyzer's guided analysis tool lets users answer standardized questions for analyzing data and provides built-in template measures that can easily identify key performance indicators. Data Analyzer isn't a data-mining tool in the traditional sense of the word, but it will help typical business users find answers and interesting patterns without necessarily knowing which questions to ask.

Microsoft plans to release Data Analyzer in late October or early November; it should retail for about $100 to $300. Data Analyzer won't be part of Excel but will leverage Excel's existing data-analysis capabilities, just as Microsoft Visio leverages the functionality of other Microsoft tools. Visio is a standalone tool that you can easily integrate with other Microsoft products through Visio's rich object-model interface. Expect to integrate Data Analyzer in a similar manner.

After sifting through the rumor mill, I discovered that Data Analyzer's feature set is similar to the flagship product from Maximal Innovative Intelligence, a niche provider of data-analysis tools that work with Microsoft's database technology. Microsoft wouldn't confirm or deny a Maximal acquisition or Data Analyzer's pedigree. However, Maximal's Web site (http://www.maxsw.com) is no longer active.

Microsoft typically positions its products as THE platform for partners and customers to build on. However, the company must walk a fine line as it extends Excel and Office into richer data-analysis tools. Microsoft sees Office as its tool to make OLAP technology ubiquitous and available to the masses. The company must improve Office's BI capabilities to meet that goal, and Data Analyzer is a step in the right direction. However, if Microsoft enhances Office too far and too fast, the company risks alienating the loyal Independent Software Vendor (ISV) base that has helped make SQL Server 2000 Analysis Services a world-class OLAP solution.

From what I've seen, Data Analyzer is a nice compromise. Data Analyzer's new visualization tools will turn Office into a useable BI tool. However, Microsoft has left plenty of room for the leading BI tool vendors to provide customer value and maintain market share by selling tools with features that go above and beyond Office's OLAP-for-the-masses approach.