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.