Data Visualization Specialists Out in Front

Pure players Spotfire and Tableau have quite a head start on what Microsoft and others currently bring to the table visualization-wise.

As IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., and Oracle Corp. have incorporated ETL, OLAP, data mining, and (in the SQL Server and Oracle worlds, anyway) reporting capabilities into their flagship relational database platforms, the first three markets—and, to some extent, the reporting market segment too—have crept ever closer to commoditization. Not that there isn’t a place for best-of-breed ETL, OLAP, or data mining providers, it’s just that for a number of customers, IBM’s, Microsoft’s, or Oracle’s integrated offerings provide all the performance and functionality they need.

As Microsoft, Business Objects SA, and other business intelligence (BI) stalwarts eye up another promising market segment—that for data visualization technologies—it’s worth taking a look at pure play vendors such as Spotfire Inc. and Tableau Software Inc. to see just what they bring to the table—and also how much catching up the BI powers that be still have to do.

First things first: companies such as Spotfire and Tableau have quite a head start on what Microsoft (via its acquisition of the former ProClarity Corp.) and Business Objects (with its Xcelsius technology) currently bring to the table, visualization-wise. A TDWI researcher who spoke on background earlier this year noted that visualization pure plays still enjoy a significant edge over the platform players.

While companies such as the former ProClarity have arguably improved their visualization capabilities, this researcher argued, they still have a way to go before they catch the pure play vendors, and SAS Institute Inc.

There’s another important wrinkle, too, says Spotfire CEO Christopher Ahlberg: data visualization didn’t just abrupt entire out of a product pipeline somewhere, nor is it the product of a concerted R&D process. Instead, it draws from a decade and more of research in several different areas. Spotfire, for example, announced its newest deliverable, Spotfire Data Experience (DXP), a .NET 2-based analytics offering, just last week. In the past, Spotfire has targeted business analysts and other power users with its visualization software, but with DXP the company hopes to reach rank and file business users, too.

“The only thing we can differentiate ourselves with is that we are smarter with information, because we’ve been doing this for so long—in some cases, [we’ve been doing this] from the very beginning,” says Ahlberg, who did his PhD work in visualization and human/computer interactions. “It sort of tells you why classic BI has really been geared toward packaging up reports. It used to be enough to deliver consistent numbers across my company, and that’s one place where [the classic BI vendors] excelled, but that’s not enough to create differentiation anymore. We’ve been doing this in a lot of different places,” he concludes, citing a list of Global 2000 customers that includes Pfizer, Texas Instruments, Samsung, and the Coca-Cola Co.

Like Spotfire’s Ahlberg, Tableau chief Christian Chabot has a penchant for dropping big names: Tableau doesn’t have quite the history of Spotfire (which was founded in 1996), but its customers already include General Motors Corp. and Safeway Inc. The implication is that while these companies already have BI tools from IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Business Objects, and other vendors in-house, they’ve tapped software from pure plays such as Spotfire and Tableau to address their data visualization needs.

Why? To paraphrase the Star Wars: Episode IV-era Han Solo, doing data visualization ain’t like dusting crops, folks. “People find the graphical approach we take very approachable. There’s just something about a picture when it’s combined with the underlying data that people are finding simpler and more approachable and much easier to communicate with,” Chabot comments. “So why aren’t more of our competitors doing it? On the surface of it, it looks easy [for a competitive vendor to develop that technology itself], but if you look at what our competitors are coming up with, that clearly isn’t the case. What you see in Tableau is based on literally years of research.”

Spotfire’s Ahlberg says data visualization is poised to be The Next Big Thing. An unsurprising claim, perhaps, from a chief executive at one of the more prominent data visualization pure-plays, but Ahlberg has a hoity-toity trump card of sorts to play: A January article in the Harvard Business Review which introduced the idea (contra the HBR’s infamous IT-is-dead piece from two years ago) that organizations could gain competitive advantages by competing on the basis of analytics. “This is the idea that we can actually can do smarter things with data, and this is one of those places where we [Spotfire] obviously compete. Some of the other visualization vendors might mention customers who’ve spent $10,000 or $20,000, but the guys we’ve mentioned have spent millions with us—because they believe in this [idea of competing on the strength of analytics].”

There is a catch, of course. After all, what’s to stop IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, or other aspiring powers-that-be from taking a shortcut to data visualization success—perhaps by acquiring Spotfire or Tableau? If visualization is indeed poised to be The Next Big Thing, then wouldn’t it behoove these vendors to shore up their strategies in this regard? Ahlberg acknowledges that it’s a concern, but says it’s not something he spends much time worrying about.

“You can go worry yourself sick about somebody’s going to come run me over, but, really, what does that get you? We put a large number of people on building this product that we just released this week, and you can only make sure that when you get your customers to use your product, that you make them incredibly successful—then good things will happen,” he concludes. “You also have to be careful about not trying to build things that are becoming commoditized. We’re careful not to try to build something like classic reporting, for example.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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