Platforms For Building Richer BI Applications
One of the mysteries of the MS BI third-party ecosystem is how slow it has been to make use of technologies like WPF and Silverlight. Marco Russo has a plausible explanation of why this is here; it’s really only in the last six months that things have begun to change. A few products I’ve seen or heard of include Clearway GeoAnalyzer, Radarsoft’s RIA Grid and Intelligencia for Silverlight; there’s also increased interest in building your own specialised BI apps in Silverlight – for example I’ve seen Sascha Lorenz do presentations on this subject at various conferences, and of course Bart Czernicki’s book “Next Generation Business Intelligence Software with Silverlight 3” was released a few months back. I still don’t think we’re anyway near reaching the potential of the technology though.
I think one way to increase uptake would be to provide some kind of toolkit or additional layer to help developers or even power users build BI applications. Maybe something like a Microsoft version of SAP’s XCelsius would be a good idea? I know there would be a lot of overlap with what PerformancePoint is meant to do, but I think there is sometimes a need for highly visual presentation of data rather than plain old dashboards, beyond what’s possible with PerformancePoint, Excel or Visio even in Office 2010. I’m not advocating the abandonment of Stephen-Few-ish design principles for serious business dashboards in favour of fancy gauges and animations – but sometimes, for example in presentations or newspaper articles, a bit of ‘wow’ in the way the data is presented can be as important for the overall purpose as the meaning of the data; the kind of visualisations you can find on http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/, for example, are what I’ve got in mind here.
Here’s two examples of what could be done. When I saw Microsoft Semblio I thought something like it for BI developers for creating dashboards or presentations would be cool: it’s an SDK for creating rich, multimedia content for educational purposes. In a similar vein, I recently met up with an ex-customer of mine, Steven Peters, who is now the owner of a startup called Munglefish that develops a platform for developing closed-loop sales and marketing presentation applications. Munglefish’s EpicX platform is something like an interactive PowerPoint, and among other things each ‘slide’ can display BI data as an aid to the sales process (eg if you’re selling Widgets to an IT consultant in his mid-30s in SE England, you’d be able to display just how much money other IT consultants in their mid-30s in SE England had saved buying your brand of widgets) as well as capturing information about the flow of the sales process and sending it back to a data warehouse to be analysed; I think it is one of the best examples of BI being integrated in what is not primarily a BI application that I’ve ever seen, and its success is completely due to the kind of high-quality graphics that are possible with WPF and Silverlight. These platforms don’t remove the need for a developer but they do reduce the overall amount of development work needed. They are also targeted at scenarios where slick visualisations are very important for engaging the audience – we know it’s just as important to hold the CEO’s attention in a dull meeting where you’re presenting your financial data as it is to hold a 12-year-old’s attention in a science lesson.
Finally, last week I also saw the announcement of Vedea, a new, experimental data visualisation language from Microsoft Research. You can find full details of it on Martin Calsyn’s blog here:
It’s basically a new .NET language for “creating interactive infographics, data visualizations and computational art” – pretty much what I’ve been asking for so far in this post, and although I still think it would be too technical for the average business user I can see it would have a lot of interesting uses for BI professionals. With a bit of luck, like F#, it will make the transition to being a full member of the .NET family one day and maybe then we’ll have a tool that will allow us to make the most of the power of Silverlight and WPF for BI with the minimum of effort.