Xcelsius, Zen and Nirvana

Yesterday SAP held a new style “All Access” webinar to discuss its recently published Statement of Direction (SOD) for dashboard development. The openness of the format (indeed the fact the event happened at all) was a testament to Mico Yuk’s persistence and plaudits should go to her and to Mani Gill, Scott Leaver, Ian Mayor and Jason Rose from SAP, who were on the call.

It was an interesting call with many key points to take away and although it probably didn’t answer everyone’s questions I think the folks did a good job. Answering detailed questions from users of a product, looking out over 3-5 years, in a public webinar, which competitors could easily be listening in to, is a careful balancing act which does not always satisfy everyone. I have sat in that chair many times and would like to congratulate Mani for the way he handled things yesterday (disclosure, I worked with Mani at Crystal and Business Objects for many years).

Key points from the SAP SOD and “All Access” call

The main news from both the call and the SOD was that, for the time being (the next two years in my estimation), SAP will have a dual-track of dashboard technology, comprising a new product codenamed Zen and the existing SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards (formerly Xcelsius) product. What I took away from the call is that, over this dual-track timeframe:

1) For dashboards not connected to BW, Xcelsius/SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards (SBOD) is the appropriate tool

2) For the next 6-12 months, BW connected dashboards should continue to use Xcelsius / SBOD

3) In 6-12 months’ time, following its release, Zen should be considered for BW connected dashboards

To address the “Xcelsius on mobile devices” issue, the SAP folks reiterated the “export to HTML5″ plan which Scott Leaver announced at BI2012 (summarized in a previous blog post here ) and Mani confirmed again that investment in Xcelsius is on-going and improvements (particularly in the mobile arena) are planned after the HTML5 version is released.

The dates for the HTML5 version of Xcelsius were confirmed as “before the end of the year” (although I am still not clear if this is beta or ramp-up). In the interim, for Xcelsius mobility, Mani was kind enough to specifically call out Antivia (XWIS Anywhere) as one of the partner solutions which would bridge the gap (I think he said it on the call, but he certainly tweeted it afterwards).

Is SAP going all Zen on us?

Zen, it turns out, is a completely new tool coming out of the “Analysis” team in Europe; it sounds like it started life as a front-end tool for BW, but is now being re-positioned, over the long term, as an application development tool aimed at professional developers (i.e. people who write code) and as a dashboard design tool.

You might wonder how an app development tool can also be a dashboard design tool, but this isn’t as much of a stretch as it seems. As I have written before, there is an convergence between dashboards and BI Applications happening today in the marketplace (see my recent blog post here and SCN Article here and the On-demand Webinar here). The re-positioning of Zen is, IMO, just part of that convergence.

As for the idea of a professional coding environment for building Dashboards/ BI Apps, it would be hard for us to disagree given we launched one of these last October at SBOUC in Orlando. It is a tool called FlexWIS and you can find more details here and see it in action in a video here.

Ian Mayor (the solution manager for Zen) reiterated that Zen is initially targeted only at BW and HANA, but would be broadened out (through the semantic layer) to other sources over time. This broadening is planned for the third phase of the roll out (phase 1 is later this year) and this is why I think that the two tracks (Zen and Xcelsius) will stay completely independent for at least the next two years.

And, what future for Xcelsius?

That brings us onto the $64,000 question: “How will these two tools relate to each other in the long term?” or in the rather pessimistic way that existing users insist on putting it “does Zen mean the death of Xcelsius?”.

Actually, in my view it is not that big a question, there is a lot of runway in front of Xcelsius. It is the world’s most widely deployed dashboarding tool (with the possible exception of Excel) and at a conservative estimate had netted SAP Business Objects over half a billion dollars in direct licence revenue over the years (and much more in influenced sales). It is not going away anytime soon. Mani was quick to point out that Xcelsius is “not another DeskI” but even if it was, history suggests that deprecation would be some 5-10 years from now.

However, I don’t think it will come to that. Either Zen will become a great Xcelsius replacement or Xcelsius (with HTML5 and on-going improvements) will continue well into the future – there is just too much value in the Xcelsius concept to let it go.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

… and, so the principle of Xcelsius re-executed in Zen, with suitable conversion tools (and friendly upgrade licencing), could be the right path for the future.

Having said that, there is a key point here: Zen is currently targeted at developers. The key innovation in Xcelsius was the integration of the spreadsheet. I can’t put it any better than Jamie Oswald did on last night’s DS Layer podcast (here)

“the power of Xcelsius was that you could build applications but do it without needing people who were application developers

That was made possible by the integration of the spreadsheet. If this key innovation does not live on somewhere in the SAP product set, then I would see that as a huge opportunity for an enterprising start-up to walk in and take up the mantle.

But, I don’t expect this to happen, there is too much investment in Xcelsius in the SAP user base, and it is too good a tool for allowing non-developers to create the new breed of BI Applications, for SAP to throw this innovative baby out with the Flash bathwater.

 

8 thoughts on “Xcelsius, Zen and Nirvana

  1. Xeradox (Andreas J.A.)

    One:
    —-
    Professional developers? Is there such a thing as unprofessional developers… I think “coders” would be the appropriate term ;-)

    Two:
    —-
    Quote: “..the power of Xcelsius was that you could build applications but do it without needing people who were application developers”
    Ahh, and that still leaves out the most importanbt task: Effective Visual Design of a dashboard, a skill which neither coders nor regular end-users (e.g. controllers) typicall have. The area of “Data Visualization” is too often totally neglected, when talking about Dashboards, Xcelsuis or ZEN.

    Three:
    —-
    Do not believe just publishing a dashboard to a mobile device will do.
    One has to take into consideration the smaller screen, but high resolution of smartphones nowadays to design an effective dashboard (tailored around the smartphone screen resolution and size).

    Reply
    1. @donaldmac Post author

      Andreas,

      Some thoughts on your comments:

      1) I think the label “professional” here is important as it gives an indication of the level of skill you will need to use the tool.

      2) I have to disagree here (we have disagreed on this in the past!), I am not sure why you feel “effective visual design” is so important, I agree that it is important to make sure that visual design does not lead to incorrect interpretation of the data, but past that the difference it makes feels marginal. Happy to be proved wrong if you have good examples to the contrary.

      3) If you are talking about a phone screen you are probably right, but from what I have seen the vast majority of dashboards built for the desktop/laptop screen work well on tablets like iPads. In fact the most common request we are getting is exactly that, to get existing dashboards onto iPads.

      Reply
      1. Xeradox (Andreas J.A.)

        Two:

        Why is visual design important, simple said: because it counts.

        Apple was/is so successful, because of the thoughtful design down to the last screw, down to the last mouse-click (well Apple’s mean, lean marketing machine also did and does matter).
        Design Gurus such as Dieter Rams (and his 10 principles for good design http://tinyurl.com/cczgt4v), the Bauhaus group and Jonathon Ive (Apple) among others define good design.

        3d charts or even worse, stacked 3d pie charts, bright colors for almost everything, drawing boxes around charts to separate data visually, or segregating data by splitting data up across multiple screens (thereby hindering pattern search, etc.) are all examples of poor visual design. Gauges, which use lots of real estate, but do not provide much information are another example of poor design choice.

        Good design choices: use line charts for time series as a rule of thumb, do color encode your KPIs (not blue for Revenue in one chart and then yellow for Revenue in another slide for the same KPI e.g.), create context (rich information), allow for comparisons,

        *** MAKE your DASHBOARDs RICH ***
        RICH not just in amount of data shown, but RICH in information, which leads to understanding, which leads to action.

        Why is effective visual design important? Because it allows us to see and understand the presented data quickly, it allows us to search for patterns and thereby analyze dependencies. It empowers us to make well informed decisions.

        I suggest reading this article by Stephen Few: http://tinyurl.com/4y6vpb3
        Another great person, who is passionate about usability, is Bret Victor, see what the software world could be like: http://vimeo.com/36579366

        Reply
  2. Xeradox (Andreas J.A.)

    On TWO:
    ——-
    Why is visual design important, simple said: because it counts.

    Apple was/is so successful, because of the thoughtful design down to the last screw, down to the last mouse-click (well Apple’ mean lean marketing machine also did and does matter…). Design Gurus such as Dieter Rams (and his 10 principles for good design http://tinyurl.com/cczgt4v), the Bauhaus group and Jonathon Ive (Apple) among others define good design.

    3d charts or even worse, stacked 3d pie charts, bright colors for almost everything, drawing boxes around charts to separate data visually, or segregating data by splitting data up across multiple screens (thereby hindering pattern search, etc.) are all examples of poor visual design. Gauges, which use lots of real estate, but do not provide much information are another example of poor design choice.

    Good design choices: use line charts for time series as a rule of thumb, do color encode your KPIs (not blue for Revenue in one chart and then yellow for Revenue in another slide for the same KPI e.g.), create context (rich information), allow for comparisons,

    *** MAKE your DASHBOARDs RICH ***
    RICH not just in amount of data shown, but RICH in information, which leads to understanding, which leads to action.

    Why is effective visual design important? Because, it allows us to see and understand the presented data quickly, it allows us to search for patterns and thereby analyze dependencies. It empowers us to make well informed decisions.

    I suggest reading this article by Stephen Few: http://tinyurl.com/4y6vpb3
    Amother great person, who is passionate about usability, is Bret Victor, see what the software world could be like: http://vimeo.com/36579366

    Reply
  3. Pingback: The Future of SAP Dashboards

  4. Pingback: Xcelsius: ZEN und die Zukunft von SAP BO Dashboards | graphomate blog zu aussagekräftigen Visualsierungen

  5. AlunJD

    Point 1
    “Professional developers? Is there such a thing as unprofessional developers”

    I think Professional separates them out from Amateur as apposed to unprofessional (ie people who code but it is not their dayjob)

    Point 2
    I think that the visualaization is the main point of dashboards so I fail to see why this is overlooked ( or am I missing something), it may be done badly in some cases but the effort is there.

    Point 3
    Yes mobiles are different, however after all the work doing this for websites, the knowledge gained should be handy.

    Reply
  6. fareed

    what sap should focus on in dashboards, is
    - enrichment of current dashboard designer in terms of graphical components,
    - visualization effects of these components like 3D effect and texture. sexy look and feel. best example can be MS office 2010 chart components, its visual effects and features.
    - rich and detailed map components,
    - different type of gauges, currently very poor.
    it’s excel based data binding and mapping makes it very flexible, due to excel lot of dynamism can be build, but when it comes to visualization, it lacks and we are not able to sell it our customers. if SAP can set an immediate focus on this aspect, it will make the dashboard designer the top leading dashboarding tool.

    Reply

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