Monthly Archives: January 2012

When is a Dashboard not a Dashboard ?

In a great post last year, Timo Elliott commented on the debate around the question:

‘What is the difference between “Business Intelligence” and “Business Analytics”?’

And, his typically pithy answer was; “everyone has an opinion, but nobody knows, and you shouldn’t care”.

I would wholeheartedly agree, and in fact, I would go one step further and say, it is a daft, waste-of-time, irrelevant question.

Of course, we need labels which help guide us, after all I don’t want to go to a BI conference to find out it is about stamp collecting. But academic debates about the meaning and definition of anything other than the most general labels are pointless and damaging. Who cares if it is “intelligence” or “analytics” or whether it is a “datamart” or a “datawarehouse”, the real question is “will it help our business?”

The main reason that these questions are damaging (beyond the time wasted thinking about them) is that they act as a constraint on what is possible.

A good example of this is with dashboards. There are those who would argue that a dashboard should provide information at a glance and should not be used for interacting with data, with (IMO misguided) references to car dashboards to back this up.

This flies in the face of pretty much every real world “dashboard” I have ever seen, where the ability to navigate around the data to some extent is almost always a basic requirement. In fact, the more I think about it, the more “Interactive BI App” seems to better describe what people really want when they say they are looking for a dashboard. (I know, that feels like just another definition but hopefully is it general and descriptive enough not to add to the problem).

This has an interesting echo of the much talked about “consumerisation of IT”. The consumer world (particularly where mobile is concerned) has been transformed by “apps” in the past few years and I think that in BI we could do a lot worse than wonder how we could replicate some of this success in the business world.

So, next time you see a dashboard requirement, ask yourself how it might be delivered in the spirit of an iPad app:

Engaging, specific, no training required, valuable to the end-user – not a bad place to start !

If I were to make a BI prediction about 2012 it would be that this might be the year we see the rise of the BI App (and yes they will be available on mobile as well as the desktop).

Xcelsius luminaries welcome XWIS 3.0

As we announced yesterday, XWIS 3.0 is now generally available. It is our biggest release to date with a host of new features, many of which help Xcelsius retain its position as the premier dashboarding tool in the face of competition from some of the niche BI vendors. In fact, we believe that XWIS is the ultimate companion product to Xcelsius. But we would say that wouldn’t we !

Fortunately we are not the only ones who are saying it. Some of the world’s most respected Xcelsius gurus are saying great things about XWIS 3.0:

Mico Yuk: “There are three things Xcelsius customers want: 1) To reduce the time and effort it takes to connect to live data, 2) To view their dashboards offline and 3) To view their dashboards on an iPad. With XWIS 3.0 and the upcoming XWIS Anywhere for iPad release, Xcelsius customers will have all these capabilities and more.

Almost identically, I had a conversation with Andrew Fox, recently, in which he said “Three common things customers and dashboard designers say to me about Xcelsius are ‘I want dashboards to be easier to connect to data, I want them offline and I want them on the iPad’, the solutions provided by Antivia can address each of these.”

When Chris Hickman started using XWIS 3.0, he posted on twitter: “I just built my first XWIS / GMaps Dashboard in about 3 minutes. Holy cow! The hype is true!”, and “just installed Antivia [XWIS] 3. A very quick and easy installation process to unlock huge potential in your dashboards!

And Scott Strool joined him saying: “Dear next customer, please have or be open to using @antivia #xwis for your dashboards. #highly_productive.”

Finally Ryan Goodman wrote on his blog: “when Xcelsius and XWIS are combined, I still believe the two solutions together elevate Xcelsius back to the top of the list as the best dashboard solution in the market. The flexibility of Xcelsius’ form-design coupled with real data analysis firepower of XWIS is second to none.”

It is great to have support from such a high-powered set of Xcelsius luminaries. Roll on XWIS 4.0 :-)


Mobility and the Future of Xcelsius

Over the past week or so there has been a flurry of on-line activity following two blog posts by Steve Lucas (EVP Business Analytics, Database & Technology at SAP):

The Demise of Flash and the Battle for the End-User Experience
Putting Mobile First and the New Business Intelligence Priorities

Before these posts, some people had fears for the future for Xcelsius, but these fears seemed to have been calmed by Steve’s commitment to an HTML5 version of Xcelsius later this year.

In his reasoning, I think Steve overstates the death of Flash, but nonetheless I believe he is completely right in outlining the intended new direction of HTML5 for Xcelsius. On top of this, I believe that the time between now and an HTML5 version of Xcelsius and also the time before we see feature parity between Flash and HTML5 both give a perfect opportunity for SAP solution partners to play their part in ensuring a long an healthy future for Xcelsius (on mobile and on the desktop).

Flash vs HTML5

In my post Xcelsius and Flash – Plus ça change … written at the time when Adobe made their mobile Flash announcement, I pointed out that whilst they had retreated from Flash plugins for the mobile browser, they were actually increasing their focus on Flash (in the guise of AIR) for cross-platform mobile app development. In fact, I would argue that Flash/Flex/AIR is currently the only cross-platform development/design capability which could come close to replicating what is possible with the Xcelsius designer today on a mobile device (and, that is a key driver behind our FlexWIS product, but that is a story for another day).

Currently, HTML5 does not really come close. There are many toolkits out there for HTML5 development, but the whole area is really still in the category of emerging technology. As an example, scan through this post on PhoneGap / Sencha Touch, it is from 8 months ago but I am pretty sure it is still representative of the state of play today. Couple that with the patchy support for the HTML5 spec in currently deployed browsers and you realize that it is still early days and there is some way to go before HTML5 has the tools and supporting infrastructure to become a mainstream technology for the types of BI applications which people typically use Xcelsius to build.

If anyone has recreated a non-trivial, Xcelsius-style model in HTML5/JS then I would love to see it and I would be happy to change my mind. In a world where many Xcelsius dashboards struggle with scalability and performance inside the Flash runtime, the HTML5/JS environment is unlikely to cut it for the time being.

HTML5 – the right choice for SAP

So, why do I say Steve has made the right choice in promising a version of Xcelsius with HTML5 output? Because, just as in the Wayne Gretsky quote, it is “where the puck is going to be”. Despite the current state of play, HTML5 is a near certain bet for the future.

There is a growing head of steam around HTML5 and the technology will get better and better. By the time the first HTML5 version of Xcelsius appears in beta things will have moved on, and, in the years to come, HTML5 is pretty much guaranteed to be a robust enough environment, supported by the mature development/design tooling, to make it viable.

So, technology is moving on, and for Xcelsius a re-architecture is required – this is hardly unknown in technology circles and as Dallas Marks points out on his blog this is very reminiscent of the DeskI to WebI transition, with which long-standing BusinessObjects customers are very familiar.

The role of partners

One thing which gives Steve and his team a little breathing space is a great piece of foresight from a few years ago. The introduction of the Xcelsius SDK and the work SAP has done to foster a partner ecosystem means there is much more to the product than what comes out of the box. Partner solutions extend the product in a number of areas and more importantly will continue to drive the product forward even as SAP get to work on their HTML5 re-architecture.

This is something which we at Antivia are happy to be able to do. Today, our XWIS product answers the five most commonly requested additions to Xcelsius, namely:

  • Easier data management
  • Greater performance and scalability
  • Offline
  • iPad delivery
  • End user ad-hoc analysis

And, we are already planning our next version, which will add more capability and innovation to the existing Xcelsius.

We also fully intend to be part of things going forward, so as the HTML5 version of Xcelsius emerges and evolves, Antivia will add our unique value into this world, too.

A good example of this is our XWIS Anywhere for iPad product. We architected it in such a way that whilst it can deliver all existing Xcelsius dashboards onto an iPad, it is also “HTML5-ready”, so when the new wave of models are possible it will be able to seamlessly display these as well.

For more details join our XWIS Anywhere Webinar on the 26th January 2012 (registration required)

The road ahead

As a current Xcelsius customer, far from having “backed the wrong horse” as one commentator put it, medium to long term innovation from SAP, and immediate capabilities and innovation from partners means you can have your cake and eat it :-)

Which is just as well, because Xcelsius today is the only BI tool available which makes it quick and easy to create the type of Interactive BI Apps which users really want when they ask for dashboards, but that, too, is another story.

Facts from the history of Xcelsius

In the “12 Days of XWIS” series I included a few lesser-known facts from the history of Xcelsius. If you are interested in these but not so keen to trawl through each of the 12 posts, I have summarized them altogether below for easier reading.

The History of Xcelsius – Fact 1

Xcelsius was originally developed by a company called Infommersion based in San Diego, California. It was initially conceived (possibly over the dinner table) by Santiago and Santi Becerra the father and son who became the founding CEO and CTO respectively. They wanted something which spanned their two areas of expertise, namely, Business Intelligence / Performance Management (Santiago) and Game / Animation Development (Santi); the result was Xcelsius.

The History of Xcelsius – Fact 2

Infommersion was founded in 2002 and Xcelsius was officially released on July 10th at Flash Forward 2003, in New York. Later that year Xcelsius won “PC Magazine Best of Comdex(remember Comdex in Las Vegas !!)

Infommersion and the Xcelsius product were acquired by Business Objects on November 1st 2005 for $40M.

The History of Xcelsius – Fact 3

The project at Business Objects to acquire Infommersion was code-named “project Beacon”. The deal was officially announced on the 4th October 2005 and was completed on the 1st November 2005.

The first Business Objects person to spot Xcelsius was Roger Sanborn, who sent an email in October 2003 saying “Check this stuff out. Go to the demos. Interesting,”.

History of Xcelsius Fact 4

The flexibility of Xcelsius is one of its key strengths, however it does mean that sometimes people push the boundaries a little too far. Amongst the most remarkable “complexity” stories I have heard about Xcelsius are:

  1. The Xcelsius model with 600 QaaWS connections
  2. The Xcelsius model with 120 Live Office connections
  3. The Xcelsius model which has 240 pages of documentation to describe the spreadsheet calculations

Fortunately, these were not all in the same dashboard!

History of Xcelsius Fact 5

Many of the original team at Infommersion are still involved in the BI word; indeed, most of them still work in and around the SAP BusinessObjects products. A number of the team are now working on Roambi at Mellmo, including Santiago Becerra (CEO), Santi Becerra (development), Brian Mantuano (development), Kirk Cunningham (marketing), Claire Remillard (nee Maytum, finance) and Jaime Zuluaga (product). Mary Bridgen (VP Sales) is now with Qliktech, Jesse Calderon (development) continues to work at SAP and Ryan Goodman is now CEO at Centigon solutions. (I am sure there are some I have missed, if so please email me and I will add them).

History of Xcelsius Fact 6

Did you know that prior to Xcelsius 2008, Excel was not embedded within the Xcelsius designer. This meant that you had to create your spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, save it as an xls, then import it into Xcelsius to work on it. This may not sound very onerous, but it meant that every time you wanted to make a change to the spreadsheet you had to go back into Excel, make the required changes then re-import the spreadsheet back into Xcelsius ! A fairly laborious workflow.

History of Xcelsius Fact 7

The Xcelsius icon has not changed much over the years; its evolution is shown in the image below. The first one might not have been an official product icon, but it did appear in a number of early sample dashboards created by Infommersion.




History of Xcelsius Fact 8

One of the pivotal points in the history of Xcelsius after the Business Objects acquisition was when Richard Reynolds (at that time a Business Objects pre-sales consultant) proposed a project to the “Labs” development team in Paris to produce something he called the “WSDL Wizard” which would provide a direct connection between Xcelsius and the BusinessObjects semantic layer. Alexis Naibo (the Labs team owner for the project) took the project on but renamed it “Query as a Web Service” or QaaWS … and the rest is history. Without Richard, Alexis and QaaWS, the evolution of Xcelsius would almost certainly have been rather different.

History of Xcelsius Fact 9

Another pivotal feature came in the 2008 release namely the Xcelsius SDK. This allowed third parties to write “add-in” components that could be used alongside the built-in Xcelsius components. The SDK has been a continued source of innovation over the years with many SAP partners creating components to extend the capabilities of the product.

One of the first (possibly the very first), component to be publicly demonstrated was a “coverflow” component, which Brian Mantuano from the Xcelsius development team presented in a session at Adobe MAX in October 2007.

History of Xcelsius – Fact 10

Included in the Xcelsius 2008 release was a completely new set of maps providing more capability and covering the globe in significantly more detail. Unfortunately, one key map was missing – Canada ! This was particularly ironic as the Xcelsius development team was organizationally part of Business Objects’ Vancouver Development Center. Thankfully, the Canadian map was added in in the first service pack a few months later, but it was a pretty glaring omission for a while.

It just goes to show that bugs in software are like needles in a haystack, very hard to find, but obvious when you find one sticking in your finger.

History of Xcelsius – Fact 11

When it was first released, the SDK allowed developers to create new components which could be be dropped onto the Xcelsius canvas. However, what many people don’t realize is that with the release of Xcelsius 2008 SP1 the SDK was extended to enable support for new Excel functions within Xcelsius. This addition meant that it was now possible to:

  1. Implement built-in Excel functions which were not supported by the core Xclesius product
  2. Re-create custom Excel functions (e.g. commercial add-ons of custom VBA functions)

A good introduction to the extended SDK capability can be found on this SAP Community Networks blog post.

History of Xcelsius – Fact 12

Although Xcelsius has been one of the most successful dashboarding tools of the last decade (both commercially and in terms of the sheer volume of business information it has been used to disseminate) it is not without its detractors. Probably the best known and most outspoken of these is Stephen Few, who once described Xcelsius as a “child’s toy of a product” on his Visual Business Intelligence blog. Stephen’s issue with Xcelsius seems to be that Xcelsius makes it too difficult to create dashboards which conform to visualization best practice (in fact, Stephen might argue that this is impossible with Xcelsius, but I would disagree with him on that) and makes it too easy to create dashboards which are simply flashy for the sake of it.

As I have argued before (e.g. on the EverythingXcelsius blog) I think it is the combination of the two ends of the spectrum which have underpinned the success of Xcelsius; I guess my view is not surprising given that I authored theXComponents which contain both the XGlobe (perhaps the least best-practice-compliant component ever written for Xcelsius) and the first publically available bulletchart and sparkline components for Xcelsius.

12 Days of XWIS Competition Result

Late last year we published a series of blog posts under the “The 12 Days of XWIS” theme. These posts highlighted some of the key features of Antivia’s XWIS product line and gave a few (hopefully) interesting facts from the history of Xcelsius. To make it (even) more interesting we also ran a competition where entrants had to find hidden words in each of the videos which were part of the previous day’s fact.

The intended answers to the competition are at the bottom of this post. Some people submitted valid alternative answers to a few of the questions, so these entries were also accepted and included in the draw.

I am pleased to announce the winner (selected at random from the correct entries) is Andrew Craig from Corelogic in the UK . Many thanks to everyone who took part.

Answers (times in brackets are the point in the video where the answer appears)

Day 1 – San Diego (0:55)

Day 2 – Las Vegas (1:00)

Day 3 – Beacon (0:27)- other accepted answer “2005”.

Day – 4 600 QaaWS (2:05)

Day 5 – Brian Mantuano (1:00)

Day 6 – laborious workflow (1:55) – other accepted answer “workflow”.

Day 7 – Xcelsius icon (0:03) – other accepted answer “icon”.

Day 8 – Richard Reynolds (0:13)- other accepted answer “sales”.

Day 9 – Adobe MAX (0:06)

Day 10 – Vancouver (1:16)

Day 11 – VBA Functions (0:14)

Day 12 – Xcomponents (0:00)