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Business Objects’ Data Visualization Strategy Coming into Focus

Business Objects hopes to do for data visualization what the former Crystal Decisions once did for reporting: make it ubiquitous.

----Editor’s Note: The maturation of data visualization technology will provide the lynchpin for achieving the long-sought, oft-touted proliferation of data management practices into the fertile territory of small and mid-sized businesses; while also opening new, groundbreaking doors for power-use across all facets of the enterprise. —EGK

By Stephen Swoyer

Late last year, Business Objects SA got itself a data visualization strategy, courtesy of the former Infommersion.

Infommersion marketed Xcelsius, an interactive, Flash-powered Excel visualization complement. Business Objects acquired Infommersion in early November, announced a branded Crystal Xcelsius later that month, and promised Big Things to come.

Xcelsius brought a candy-apple sheen to Business Objects’ analytic brawn. But Xcelsius isn’t just a pretty face, BO officials stress: in addition to its Flash glam, it’s also a highly interactive tool, enabling users to drill down into data by mousing over it, as well as perform what-if analyses on data visualizations.

According to users, however, the first rev of Crystal Xcelsius was mostly a pretty face. Business Objects exposed little in the form of enhanced interoperability (much less native integration) between Xcelsius and the rest of its stack.

That changed this April when BO announced Crystal Xcelsius 4.5, along with an Xcelsius Viewer. Business Objects also touted native integration between Xcelsius and Crystal Reports and Crystal Reports Server, along with a new Xcelsius-centered package, Crystal Vision Server, for small and medium-sized customers. Just last week, BO announced Xcelsius support for Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS). The SSRS-ready deliverable is just the first of a stream of proposed business user- and developer-friendly Xcelsius enhancements, BO officials promise.

Over time, says BO director of marketing James Thomas, Business Objects hopes to do for Xcelsius what the former Crystal Decisions Inc. did for Crystal: bundle it with third-party applications and IDEs, open it up to developers, ISVs, and OEMs, and facilitate invocation of Xcelsius’ data visualization capabilities from custom-built or third-party applications.

“From the developer perspective, you’ll continue to see investment in the whole concept of the SOA, so [Xcelsius] can become a part of applications, consume applications. Already what you see today is the ability to take components from Crystal Xcelsius and plug them into the dashboard manager, [and the goal is to] make that more embeddable for OEMs and for custom development,” Thomas comments.

Candy Apple Sheen or Candy Apple Substance?

But just what does Xcelsius bring to the table? With its Flash innards and its candy apple sheen, for what kinds of users is it best suited? Thomas and other BO representatives typically talk up Xcelsius as a tool for business users, particularly as an aid to presentations, budget planning, and so on, but emphasize that it’s equally suitable for power users, too.

“What it’s going to allow a biz person to do is create a forward-looking dashboard and model the data in a stunning and pleasing way,” says Jaylene Crick, Xcelsius group product marketing manager with Business Objects. “It gives you the ability to do very simple ‘what-if’ type analysis, so one of the great features of Xcelsius is the ability to have sliders [a horizontal bar with a slider in the middle going from 0 to 100, for example] where you can say, ‘What if I add this many more sales people, and I’ve done all of the equations around the average cost of sales how much more revenue can I generate versus the cost?’ The average business person can move that slider and instantly do some projections.”

That’s the executive pitch, Crick says. For power users and developers, Xcelsius brings other benefits, courtesy of interactive drill down, granular what-if analysis, and other features. Xcelsius is still tightly coupled to Excel, too: data is still imported into the Xcelsius environment directly from Excel, although once it’s in Xcelsius, it can be written directly to SharePoint, Crystal Reports Server, or Business Objects Enterprise, from which it can later be reopened and refreshed (directly from the source repositories) with live data.

Going forward, Crick indicates, Business Objects plans to introduce different versions of Xcelsius for different kinds of users—for example, for business executives, power users, or developers. “I think what you’ll see [in Xcelsius] going forward is better specialization on users. [Some users have] a need for better, more enhanced data connectivity directly from applications, where they can connect directly to Web services. [Their analysis] should be driven by live data, from operational BI, by operational data applications. So I can see us investing in simplified data assets,” she comments.

Thomas concurs. “Both sides will see investment and potentially separation and separate versions for the biz user and the developer using these applications. Some tools will become much easier to use, others will be much more sophisticated to do more operational BI, connect to web services, and so on.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with 20 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence, data warehousing, and analytics for almost 15 years. Swoyer has an abiding interest in tech, but he’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems technology vendors never, ever want to talk about. You can contact him at [email protected].

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