After the Proclarity acquisition last year many people, myself included, thought the writing was on the wall for Panorama: after all the two companies’ product lines were very similar and if Proclarity was going to be supplied by Microsoft then there wasn’t going to be much point in looking at Panorama any more. However, one of the things that surprised me at the Microsoft BI Conference a few months back was the big display that Panorama put on. A big stand in a central location with leggy girls luring the attendees (at least the male ones) to it, a party at the top of the Space Needle – this was a company that was not dead, or at least making a pretty big effort to show that it wasn’t dead.
Of course the real test is whether the software is any good or not. In keeping with their bullish mood Panorama were handing out DVDs with their Novaview suite pre-installed on a virtual machine (you can download it here: http://challenge.panorama.com/forms/default.aspx) and since it was a while since I’d last seen what they’d got to offer (and after some encouragement from their marketing department) I was curious to check it out. After a lot of false starts surrounding licence keys etc and help from Panorama – and I have to say that in my experience their pre-sales support has always been very good – I got it running on my laptop and thought I’d share my impressions here.
I have to admit I was disappointed with the Novaview Desktop tool at first: it didn’t look as if anything had changed in the last few years. The UI looks very outdated in a VB6 way and while it’s easier to use than I remember, I’m still not convinced that it’s as intuitive as it should be. Even worse, within a few minutes of using it I got one of those unhandled (although unfatal) error messages that Panorama was always famous for – which simply isn’t acceptable today. These might be purely cosmetic points but users are more interested in this type of thing than some obscure aspect of MDX generation. After a bit more time though I felt more positive. For the power user it does pretty much everything that you’d ever want it to do, such as enter your own MDX, do writeback, advanced filtering, creating calculations; in fact it clearly does what every demanding customer has ever wanted it to do so it’s more than likely able to meet any obscure querying requirements you have.
I took my misgivings back to Panorama and they told me that the desktop client will be dropped in the next release, due Q1 2008, and from that point there will only be an AJAX-based zero-footprint client and a rich client based on Adobe Flex. It’s interesting that the latter is not based on .NET or even Silverlight; not only a move away from the desktop, which is only to be expected, but a move away from the Microsoft dev platform which I suppose makes sense given Panorama’s repositioning of itself away from being a purely Microsoft partner to working with SAP as well. Presumably it will have much the same capabilities as the current desktop client but look rather better…
In the meantime, the comparison between Novaview Desktop and ProClarity Desktop is one that has been made a lot in the past and is probably worth making again. In terms of querying functionality they’re neck-and-neck but in my opinion Proclarity is easier to use and looks marginally better, although it is still falls way short of what I’d expect from a modern BI tool. The problem with the Proclarity Desktop tool is that is has it has been declared dead by Microsoft: the last official release was made late last year and it seems there’s no place for a rich client in the bright shiny web-enabled PerformancePoint future. I’ve heard various rumours about it such as that it was going to be turned into an Excel addin or, more recently that it was going to be rewritten in .NET, but that lack of any clear direction from Microsoft on its future is a bit frustrating. I suspect that Microsoft have decided that Excel is the only desktop tool anyone is going to need, but I think there’s still a role for a dedicated client for power users and I know a lot of other Proclarity users feel the same way. If you’re in the market for a full-featured AS desktop tool then there’s little point in going with Proclarity Desktop now, so Novaview wins by default given that there’s a clear roadmap for its future.
As far as the web-based querying and dashboarding functionality goes there is clear competition with what Panorama and PerformancePoint have to offer. A lot of companies will simply go with the Microsoft offering simply because it’s from Microsoft, and that’s a perfectly valid decision; anyway, given the lineage of the product it’s going to be a lot better than a typical Microsoft version 1.0. Why choose Panorama then? Panorama claim to be a lot more scaleable on the web than the old Proclarity equivalents; it’s probably too early to tell whether the same will be true of PerformancePoint though. The cross-platform capabilities will probably be the key: from what I’ve seen in my Analysis Services consultancy work, a lot of companies using AS also use SAP BW and a common front-end for both could be an enticing prospect. I’m also told that Panorama will be building functionality behind PerformancePoint to enable import of data from other platforms and in front of it to enable integration with other applications and business processes – the kind of value-add stuff that Microsoft can’t offer because of its longer release cycles and limitations on who they can partner with.
So, it looks like Panorama have got a future after all. Just as the Microsoft’s entry into the OLAP server market didn’t lead to the immediate bloodbath among rival OLAP vendors that many predicted, so its entry into the client tool market hasn’t (yet) killed off the old third-party client tools market. The delay in getting PerformancePoint released after the Proclarity acquisition and the fact that most companies are a long way from rolling Office 2007 onto their desktops means that companies like Panorama have had a chance to work out a survival strategy – and the choice this means can only be a good thing for us end users.