Michael Saylor co-founded MicroStrategy in 1989, not long after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company’s original purpose was to develop data mining software for businesses and its first business intelligence (BI) product, MicroStrategy 2.0, was released in 1994.
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The firm is about to release MicroStrategy 10.8, which is said to deliver new capabilities in enterprise analytics mobility, embedded analytics, cloud and the internet of things (IoT), and to extend to machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) integration and predictive analytics.
Saylor is the author of The mobile wave: how mobile intelligence will change everything (2012), in which he argues that the changes wrought by mobile computing are big but hard to comprehend when inside of them. This is an edited version of an interview he gave to Computer Weekly recently.
Michael Saylor, you were one of the pioneers of business intelligence in the 1990s. What keeps you interested in this field, nearly three decade on?
One exciting trend is the mobile wave, and the new generation of mobile applications that don’t just consume intelligence but generate data, and transact on it. For example, if I’m dealing with the head of a bottling company, such as Coca-Cola bottling, then 10 years ago I could have said: “We can help you analyse your sales data.” But today, we can analyse their truck data. We can issue a mobile app to a truck driver, turn on the telemetry and find out how many stops he makes, how many minutes are spent at each stop, time in traffic, and so on. And then we can join that to sales data and figure out logistics costs. We can show you every inefficient truck, and you can then speak to the driver.
Now, it used to be that we could run a report for a store manager and he could read, on a piece of paper, what customers like to buy. Today we can run that report in a mobile app for a sales person who can, at a customer site, use Bluetooth on the device to find out about the customer, and also show them a picture or a video of what they might want to buy more of, and have a big green button for that. Essentially, 10 years ago we could deliver boring reports on paper to managers. Today we can deliver intelligence to the sales person in front of a customer at the point of sale and it’s not boring.
So, we’ve gone from something back-office, static and analyst-focused to being front-office, in the field, active and productivity focused.
I started covering the rise of the internet economy at the end of the 1990s, when there was a lot of rhetoric about the internet being the most important technology since the Gutenberg press. My sense is that most people only started to feel a big change with the advent of smart phones around a decade ago. What’s the big-picture significance of mobile for you in the context of the development of the internet?
By 2009, smartphones were working pretty well. And now, Bluetooth 4.0 works well: 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 didn’t. I always say a technology fails until it succeeds. Like the airplane after 2,000 years of trying! Today I can Bluetooth scan a room of 50 people and find my customers, with our customer badge on their phones. Or I can wave my phone in front of a hotel room, and it unlocks.
The smartphone has been the next-generation platform, and it has been clear that iOS and Android would become as important as HTML, and then more so. Unless you had efficient background processing, magical applications like Uber’s just wouldn’t work. Now they do.
The dematerialisation of things into software that you’ve talked about in and around your book – is that picking up pace, in your view? Is there more to think and write about there?
I think so. There are probably 10 to 20 years to run of the changes I wrote about there. In 2012, I wrote about the dematerialisation of money. Now Apple is talking about wiring money with iMessage, and Facebook has introduced money transfer with mobile applications. It is still early days.
I’d say that from 2007 to 2014, we had a wave of mobile communications, and the winners were WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and the like. From 2014 to 2021 or so will be the time of mobile commerce, and Uber has been an early winner there. But the dematerialisation of credentials, tickets and bank cards are the game-changers right now. It is like the William Gibson comment about the future being here now, but being unevenly distributed.
What would you say to a “stages” view of the history of business intelligence, whereby the first wave is systems of record reporting from relational databases, the second is self-service data discovery, and the third includes those two, but is more in line with the fast data stores and databases associated with Hadoop and non-relational databases? So, the first would be represented by MicroStrategy, Business Objects and Cognos; the second by Qlik and Tableau; and the third by startups such as Looker, ThoughtSpot, Chartio and others.
I think any startup needs a narrative. It is true that there are stages, and companies have to grow and evolve or they get left behind. But a more useful metaphor is that of an expanding universe. The world is not shifting from relational to big data, it is expanding in different dimensions simultaneously. You still see a lot of Oracle, SQL and Teradata. There are MDX language sources – OLAP cubes. And there are the Hadoop distributions. Those are three data platforms, and no one of them is going to make the others go away. You can go to the top 5,000 companies on earth and they are using them all.
And it goes on. There are applications like Salesforce, Workday, SAP, and so on – people will want to query the data in those directly. And there are web sources. None of those will replace each other, either. It’s more likely that a Coca-Cola will want to join data in Hadoop, in Salesforce and Oracle.
Then there is the other dimension of functionality. So, a customer will want to use R, AI, machine learning, visualisation. And yet a third dimension is the platform. It used to be Windows and Linux, but AWS is another. Now we created a version of MicroStrategy for AWS whereby an analyst can press a button and in 30 minutes spin up a 150,000-user implementation in Singapore and tunnel that back to 13 data sources. And then add to that elasticity – turn it on for 12 hours then turn it off.
The fourth dimension is the interface – the Mac OS or Windows or Android or iOs or HTML 5. There is no company with money that will just pick one. No one is going to write off any of those, or Amazon with the majority of the cloud market.
If there is a third wave of business intelligence, it will consist of those companies that embrace all of that. Startups tend to want to simplify down. Now you can build a small or mid-sized company solving a subset of the data problem.
Every company has to decide where to make its investments. Some BI company might come along and say “we are the best for the Hortonworks distribution of Hadoop”, and that might fly for a while. But I have to say I have been in this business for 27 years and every three years there is a new data technology which is the rage.
I remember one that was billed as the world’s fastest database, and I asked one of their sales people what was in the next release, and he said “joins”. That’s a colossal joke because there is no serious problem that you can solve without doing table joins. So, yes, as long as you don’t need to ask the next question or need mathematics or need more than two users to run a query, it’s super-fast and great.
In this business, you just need to be humble, get your head down, do the work and solve problems one after the other with integrity – and protect the investments that customers have made in your product. You know, the world’s largest banks still need to use systems they put in 30 years ago. So you layer the new thing on top of the existing things, and integrate them with what exists.
We have a good, governed, federated analytic architecture. We have a shared metadata repository, so if you want to deploy to 10,000 people and have single version of the truth, you can do that with MicroStrategy. If you want 200 different versions of the truth and do that beautifully and quickly, you can do that in Tableau. I’m not disparaging that – this is how innovation takes place, and you can integrate that into the enterprise.
If they ignore that, they get stuck in their niche. If we ignore Android or dashboards, we get stuck in ours. We are all working to innovate and that is the beauty of the free market.