On June 2, Microsoft announced the launch of two free tools: Microsoft Office Business Scorecards Accelerator and Microsoft Office Excel Add-in for SQL Server Analysis Services. Both products expand the types of business intelligence (BI) front ends that a customer can create using Microsoft technologies they likely already have without needing to buy third-party tools or writing a lot of custom code.

The Business Scorecards Accelerator is a Web-based application that lets organizations simplify the measurement and management of key performance metrics to more easily communicate, drive, and measure business strategy. Technically, the Business Scorecards Accelerator is free, but you need licenses for core products that the Accelerator relies on, such as Microsoft SharePoint Portal Services. The Excel Add-in for Analysis Services is a flexible reporting and analysis tool that lets you access and analyze data directly in Excel. By using Analysis Services' OLAP functionality, the Excel Add-in for Analysis Services lets IT professionals create customized reports that give employees the ability to access relevant business data when they need it. Both accelerators are now available for download at no additional cost to customers who have valid licenses for the required underlying Microsoft products. You'll find an FAQ, case study, deployment advice, download information, and other helpful material for each product on the following Web sites: the Business Scorecards Accelerator and the Excel Add-in for Analysis Services.

I doubt that either of these new tools, compared to full-featured third-party offerings on the market, will be best of breed. But I suspect that customers will see the offerings as welcome additions to the Microsoft BI tool suite because they're free and customers can try them out risk free.

Microsoft's strength has always been in creating platforms that third-party vendors and customers can build on. Usually, it's not in Microsoft's best interests to try to fill every niche in the market. For years, Microsoft stayed out of the BI front-end space. I doubt these additions will send established BI front-end vendors running for the hills, but I think it's a wise and customer-serving idea for Microsoft to offer more robust BI tools. Although SQL Server 2000 Analysis Services contributes to the overall value of SQL Server, countless customers who could benefit from a BI solution still have no idea what BI is. Initiatives from Microsoft that make BI more mainstream in corporate America will be good for both SQL Server adoption and for the third-party BI market.

Also, last week, I mistakenly said that extended support for SQL Server 2000 will end 2 years after mainstream support ends, but that's incorrect. Mainstream support for SQL Server 2000 will end 2 years after SQL Server 2005 is released, and extended support will last for 5 years after that. Thanks to Robert Helm from Directions on Microsoft for pointing out this error.