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Data Management // Big Data Analytics
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12/17/2014
08:36 AM
Doug Henschen
Doug Henschen
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Analytics Showdown: Should Apps Be Simpler, Or Smarter?

Qlik, Tableau, and Salesforce.com are betting on simple analytic applications, while veterans IBM and SAS push smarter. What do you need?

The latest software releases from IBM, Qlik, Salesforce, SAS, and Tableau Software demonstrate different approaches to making data analysis more accessible. Think of the showdown as simpler versus smarter. Which strategy will win?

With both approaches, vendors of analytics and business intelligence software are injecting new energy into solving decades-old complaints about the complexity of this type of software.

We've been polling technology professionals on this topic since 2010, and the 2015 edition of our InformationWeek Analytics, Business Intelligence, and Information Management Survey once again finds that "ease-of-use challenges with complex software or less technically savvy employees" is the second most-cited barrier to success in data analysis (see chart below). For the third year in a row, only data quality is cited more often as an obstacle.

So what are vendors trying to do about the complexity of their software?

[From cloud dominance to mobile-first, here are the trends we saw in enterprise apps in 2014: Top 5 Enterprise Application Trends Of 2014.]

"There's a school that believes that if you can make the software smart enough, it can do the analysis," says Anthony Deighton, CTO at Qlik. "Another school thinks that if you make the tools easy to use, people can handle even sophisticated analyses."

Qlik falls into the latter, "simpler" group, says Deighton, and you can put Saleforce.com and Tableau in that camp as well. Qlik and Tableau have been the fastest-growing vendors in the analytics and BI field in recent years, and both vendors (and their customers) attribute their success to simplicity and ease of use.

Qlik's QlikView software provides an in-memory data-discovery environment, while Tableau is known for its data-visualization software. Big BI incumbents such as IBM Cognos, MicroStrategy, Oracle, SAP, and others have all validated the Qlik and Tableau approaches by adding self-service data-discovery and data-visualization modules of their own.

Now Qlik and Tableau are upping the ante with even simpler tools -- Qlik Sense and Tableau Elastic -- aimed at a still broader base of users. QlikView is used first by analysts and power users who build data-discovery apps that less tech-savvy users can use to answer data-driven questions. Qlik Sense, the vendor's new application, is geared to self-service data visualization without the aid of analysts or power users.

"The problem with many data visualization tools is that they still have an analyst-centric model," says Deighton, meaning they require tech-savvy data analysts or business analysts to set things up. "Our focus with Qlik Sense has been to make the tools so easy to use, people can discover the insights for themselves."

Tableau goes mobile
Tableau, one of Qlik's biggest rivals, acknowledges that its Tableau Desktop software tends to be used by more data-savvy users, but the reports that those users publish on Tableau Server or Tableau Online can be "used by almost anyone," says Ellie Fields, Tableau's VP of product marketing. Using filters and other interactive controls, people ranging from salespeople and doctors to teachers and "other folks you wouldn't consider to be data analysts" are working with reports on Tableau Server and Tableau Online, Fields says.

Tableau's attempt to reach a broader base of users is Tableau Elastic, but it's not a dumbed-down version of Tableau Desktop. Elastic is a tablet app designed for a particular use-case -- such as when somebody emails you a spreadsheet, but you're not at your desk and wouldn't want to fire up a laptop. "If you're on the go you may not have much time, but you want to do better than reading columns and rows," Fields says. "With data visualization, you can absorb information in seconds that's not readily apparent looking at a spreadsheet."

Tableau isn't trying to replace Microsoft Excel, the most broadly used data analysis tool in the world, but it does see an opportunity for a tablet app that provides a visual view of the data stored in spreadsheets.

Tableau Software's Project Elastic is a beta app for tablets designed for mobile data analysis. Emailed spreadsheets become data visualizations.
Tableau Software's Project Elastic is a beta app for tablets designed for mobile data analysis. Emailed spreadsheets become data visualizations.

Saleforce.com shoots for simple
The biggest news in BI and analytics this year has been Salesforce.com's Wave Analytics Cloud, which the company has out in limited release. It's big news because Salesforce has more than 100,000 corporate customers and roughly 25 million users, stats that few BI/analytics vendors can match. In contrast to the biggest players in this arena, such as IBM, Oracle, and SAP -- all of which have broad and mostly traditional (and IT-support-centric) BI suites -- Salesforce is promising a simple, mobile-first approach.

"The fact that there are only four buttons on the Wave mobile app shows that we want to reach every user," says Keith Bigelow, a BusinessObjects veteran who is now GM and senior VP of big data and analytics at Salesforce. "Our customers already have the competitors' products, but those products weren't designed to be used by every salesperson. We want our app to be viral, and that's not the typical approach."

Wave beta customer GE Capital, for instance, had lots of BI tools to choose from, Bigelow says, "but they were not able to build an app that was consumable by a salesperson."

Usability for all is in Salesforce.com's bottom-line interest. "The single metric

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Doug Henschen is Executive Editor of InformationWeek, where he covers the intersection of enterprise applications with information management, business intelligence, big data and analytics. He previously served as editor in chief of Intelligent Enterprise, editor in chief of ... View Full Bio
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asksqn
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asksqn,
User Rank: Ninja
12/29/2014 | 4:48:48 PM
A little common sense goes a long way
Creating an app that is either smarter or involves less tech know-how is a losing proposition.  Why not just train the less technically savvy employees?  Seems to me a custom created MOOC is the order of the day for such a job.  This is not rocket science. 
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
12/18/2014 | 12:10:51 AM
Simpler Evolves into Smarter
As a solution is created it seems simple and as user adoption increases, with time more functions are added to the solution and the solution starts to seem like a complex solution for the newer users. It used to be that only top management needed to work with data, but now the entire organization needs to work with data. These changing trends make me feel that the Simpler vs. Smarter debate will always be a moving target.
Barry Parr
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Barry Parr,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/17/2014 | 7:51:32 PM
Evolution will favor simplicity
It's going to be a lot easier for simple apps to get smarter than it is going to be for the current crop of "smart" apps to simplify themselves.
CharlesCaldwell
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CharlesCaldwell,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/17/2014 | 5:04:38 PM
Simple and Smart can't be either / or
There is no either / or here when it comes to simple or smart.  Nor should there be. Tool capability must meet the needs of the task at hand.  Some tasks are more complex and require more smarts. Tool usability must meet the needs of the people that will use them. Some users can tolerate lower usability to gain capability, but more usable is always better.

Pretty tools without capability are shelf-ware. Think of all those cool iPhone apps that don't do anything.  Download and delete. While, super-smart tools without usability are geek-ware. Very few will be able to adopt them, and their overall impact will remain limited. Technology needs to have a high IQ and a good personality. 

At Logi Analytics, we are aiming to target the right tools to the right task for the right users.  Optimize each person's skill set and contribution to the process, and give them tools that are highly usable AND deliver the smarts to tackle the task at hand.  
jagibbons
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jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
12/17/2014 | 9:13:33 AM
Yes, and yes
There is a place in most organizations for both simple and smart, as defined here. Many tasks can be done in the "simple" interface by almost anyone on the front lines of the company. However, there is still a place for more detailed analytics. Some answers are simply not simple, either to ask or interpret the answer.
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