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March 19, 1997updated 05 Sep 2016 12:17pm

MICROSTRATEGY DREAMS OF DESKTOP CRYSTAL BALLS

By CBR Staff Writer

By Gary Flood

We all laughed at the moment in the wryest of the Star Trek movies, The Voyage Home, when Scotty tries to get the little 1980s personal computer he’s using to respond like the ‘real’ computers on the Enterprise. Computer! he barks, futilely – which is funny because we know computers are really stupid at responding to us like the intelligent helpmates we all think they really will be one day, and that Scotty actually has to fire up Windows to do any work. Similarly, despite the wealth of material out there on the World Wide Wait, we’re still a long way from being able to find out what we really want to know from this alleged global database. Relational On-Line Analytical Processing, ROLAP, software player Microstrategy Inc’s firecracker chief executive Michael Saylor (CI No 3,122) believes he has a way of changing all this, a means to get to what he calls ‘consumer DSS decision support systems’ or ‘query tone.’ With the query tone metaphor, Saylor wants us to think of the universal connectivity promise of dial tone – an application programming interface if you like, that allows any user to speak to any other user on the planet. Similarly, he wants to build Web-enabled query tone, so that any user anywhere can ask any question, anytime, to any data source, anywhere. We would like to treat data residing in different database instances on different database platforms and servers as a single, conceptual data warehouse, says Gaurav Rewari, senior manager of Product Management at its Fairfax, Virginia headquarters. In this Utopia, geography, level of software fluency and consistency of data formats will at last be removed as barriers to decision support. Hence, query tone.

Easily administered

With dial tone a user can pick up a phone and speak with anyone, anywhere in the world; query tone will be the ability to turn on a computer and ask any question of any database anywhere in the world, via decision support products that are easy to use, powerful, fast, easily administered, and are web-enabled. Imagine, asks Saylor, what one could ask of one’s computer then. What is the return on Fidelity funds if Microsoft is removed from all Fidelity portfolios? What is the least expensive three-star hotel room rate in Orlando? What is the average cost of a ticket from Washington DC to Seattle? What is the average score during the fifth innings of a world series game? Show me the top five heart surgeons in New York City. Anyone can abstractly see the value of being able to ask these kind of questions – and in a bleeding edge data warehouse on an intranet, you probably can. But Saylor is talking about Joe Public being able to do this via his Web television. For he is convinced that if someone could knit together enough of what is after all mostly public record – demographic databases query tone could be achieved. Nearly universal access to dial tone has created a $513bn industry – add up the revenue of only the world’s top 22 telecommunications companies, so Saylor has no problem talking about consumer Web DSS being a $100bn market quite quickly. Query tone could provide the basis for the next trillion dollar industry, he says. Which means we have a long way to go from where we now are to get to query tone. Gartner Group estimates the total data warehouse market will only be $6.9bn by 1999, which is a big figure, but not even as big as mightily chastened Apple will be by the end of the year, or around $7bn given its current prospects. Think of it another way: that’s still only about three times the size of the global hair dryer market. So Saylor’s been eating too much loco weed? Maybe, maybe not. The technical challenges alone are, to say the least, formidable. No- one has been able to show any sort of data warehouse is able to cope with 100,000 enquiries a day over the Web, for example, no matter what highly exotic parallel hardware one imagines. Plus, one has to wonder what kind of company is going to put its corporate database on line for the kind of money being posited – Saylor talks vaguely of consumers being willing to pay $10 a pop for the right kind of information, or $100 a month for businesses. Meta Group rather cutely titled its musings on Saylor’s vision DSS + OLAP + WWW = $$$. However, it was a little bearish on the risk previously mentioned: It is a legitimate fear that opening up the corporate [data warehouse] is akin to giving away the family jewels; this will mean an insurmountable obstacle for many companies. But, it adds, the thirst for information, particularly among merchants, manufacturers, and financial analysts, is such that such a market’s size could still be in the billions of dollars within a few years. An example of such skittishness was shown when Dayton, Ohio based Lexis-Nexis, bought in 1994 for $1.5bn by Reed- Elsevier Plc, announced last September that it would sell Social Security numbers, maiden names, and other consumer data as part of its P-Trak service. Angry responses from consumers demanding their names be excised from the database curbed the plan.

Plug the loophole

Lexis-Nexis says the information provided through P-Trak is merely the header information from credit reports, and hence is not covered by the US consumer credit data legislation – the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The Federal Trade Commission is now thinking of extending the Act to plug the loophole. On the other hand, at least one retailer – ShopKo Stores Inc, a $2bn operation based in Green Bay, Wisconsin – plans to let outsiders, though suppliers in this case, not as yet consumers, access its 400Gb data warehouse via Web browsers this quarter, as per Microstrategy’s vision. So Saylor’s dream – of a crystal ball on every desktop through which consumers will roam databases being charged reasonably highly for useful information – seems blocked by both the technology and social issues. But that certainly isn’t stopping him. Microstrategy has inked deals in the past 18 months with data accumulators A.C. Nielsen and IMS America, and has recently signed an integration and distribution deal with high scale database marketing and warehouse specialist Acxiom Corp, which is said to have accumulated data on 95% of US households, including names, addresses, phone numbers, approximate incomes, and data such as a person’s hobbies and interests. Big Brother or query tone? Perhaps it’s a moot question. The data is out there, and sooner or later someone’s going to try and stitch it all together and build a business model similar to Saylor’s. He himself has talked of going to Wall St and raising $500m funding to build information capital type products, in the same way America’s Industrial Age Robber Barons went to the market to get the money to build the railroads, shipyards, oil refineries and skyscrapers that made America the pre-eminent industrial giant it became. The lesson to learn is that in the Information Age ‘information’ has replaced classical economics’ ‘Labor Power.’ Which means that every swipe of your credit card will be valuable to someone – maybe even one day, you.

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