MicroStrategy did something interesting in mid-April when it began offering a full free download of its latest MicroStrategy 9 reporting suite software for groups of up to 100 users. It includes the core reporting components: the Web interface, the Intelligence Server and a pretty complete set of development tools.
  
I was surprised when I saw this. Again, for up to 100 users, the software cost is diddly-squat, free, gratis, help yourself. For a high end BI software vendor to do such a thing had me scratching my head. I couldn’t find much marketing around the decision and I’ve been talking with folks like Forrester’s Boris Evelson and BI product analyst Cindi Howson off and on and waiting to see what kind of traffic the free offer would generate.

So I was even more surprised to find that the official release actually took place today and that the free offer had been an unpublicized soft release that spread by word of mouth only.

That set up a chat with MicroStrategy VP of Products Mark LaRow, who confirmed to me that the free offer was no tease or gimmick, but the same unadulterated core software MicroStrategy’s largest customers are using.

The strategy came about because of the very proliferation of simpler cheaper tools businesses are now seeking to consolidate. “What brought this to the forefront of our attention was we noticed that in most of our big accounts, MicroStrategy is running on top of the data warehouse and serves 1,000 or 5,000 users,” LaRow told me. “But then they’ll also have 20 or 30 small islands of departmental BI using everybody else’s technology. We wondered why they weren’t deploying MicroStrategy at the departmental level.”

The answer was that departments were following their nose when it came to BI and many had picked up other tools or opted for free or nearly free products from the likes of Microsoft.

Another rub was that MicroStrategy was not only relatively expensive but complicated to deploy in a wide sense, something LaRow acknowledged and said MicroStrategy focused specifically on this in its 9 release. The current version is said to be easier to roll out, especially in smaller, departmental settings where tuning and database tweaking aren’t a big issue.

That sealed the proposition: recapture the departmental islands of BI at no cost to customers and offer CIOs an incremental reverse consolidation path based on a better product on common metadata when they can make it happen.

It's a clever idea, but it also means that MicroStrategy’s offer had better be easy to deploy because there’s no live support with the free version. For customers who want to scale above 100 users or add modules for dashboards and other MicroStrategy products there are service and per user charges that can add up. But they’re all detailed in MicroStrategy’s departmental pricing add-on sheet, which makes for a less risky proposition for customers who are still happy once they get their feet wet. That’s where the company hopes to make the giveaway pay off.

As a collateral benefit, a smaller company with $100 million in revenues or 500 employees might find they’ve gotten something perfectly usable for nothing. So far, LaRow says the free offer has been reviewed about 10,000 times, downloaded about 1,000 times and installed about 250 times with no publicity. Those are convenient ratios, and we’ll expect more numbers as word gets out.

Low-end BI is becoming a fairly commoditized proposition and all BI vendors are confronting a swath of competition that ranges from free and open source software to the bundled enterprise propositions of big vendor platforms from IBM (Cognos), SAP (Business Objects), Oracle (Hyperion) as well as Microsoft’s digestion and bundling of its own acquisitions. That doesn’t even mention the emergence of service providers who are destined to start occupying the lower rungs of BI in the not-too-distant future.

With so much emphasis on the importance of information management and the challenge of consolidation so common to large companies, models like MicroStrategy’s make me think there will be several constructive paths to standardized and pervasive BI available to business over the next few years.

What do you think?