The other week I stopped by in Maidenhead to see the guys at XLCubed, and to take a look at their latest stuff. XLCubed have been around a long time and their Excel addin AS client has always been one of the best out there, but with the improved Analysis Services support in Excel 2007 (especially with the introduction of ‘convert to formulas’) and the Proclarity acquisition has put a squeeze on the client tools sector. A lot of the third party client tools out there, XLCubed included, are better in a lot of ways than the equivalent Microsoft offerings but it’s often hard to explain to someone who isn’t very experienced with Analysis Services what the advantages are and why they represent a good reason to buy a non-Microsoft product. So, in order to survive, you need a clear, unique selling point and XLCubed now have one in the form of Microcharts after they bought Bonavista Systems last year (I blogged about the Microcharts product in its original form here). Microcharts gives you the ability to create sparklines, bullet graphs and other in-cell charts, which is not only impressive when used in conjunction with regular Excel and Reporting Services (with or without AS as a data source) but enters the realm of extreme coolness when you see how it’s been integrated with XLCubed.
Here’s just one example of the kind of dashboard you can build with XLCubed:
You can see a whole page of sample dashboards here:
Nice, eh? I should also mention they have an excellent data visualisation blog that’s well worth a read:
While on the subject of client tools, can I veer off on a tangent here and criticise Microsoft’s strategy in this area? In my opinion (and just about everyone I’ve met agrees with me, not least disgruntled ex-Proclarity employees) what they’ve done has actually harmed the core Microsoft BI market over the last two years. Before the Proclarity acquisition it wasn’t an ideal situation, for sure, since telling customers that they had to buy their client tools from a third party looked bad. But what Microsoft have done is bought the leading third-party client tool and effectively chucked it in the bin, saying people should use Excel and PerformancePoint instead. Excel 2007 is a good client tool but a) a lot of companies are still on Excel 2003 and before, and are not going to upgrade just for the sake of a BI project, b) it has nowhere near the kind of advanced functionality that the Proclarity desktop tool had and never will, and c) it still has a few glaring problems (see here for example); PerformancePoint too is encouraging but very much a version 1.0. Microsoft’s long release cycles for both mean that we have to wait way too long for any upgrade in functionality, and in the meantime we’re left with a vacuum: the third party client tool market has been weakened because now all customers will want to use Microsoft client tools as a first choice, but these client tools are not yet up to scratch. Why on earth didn’t they carry on developing the Proclarity product line for a few more years until a smoother transition could be made? Why the prejudice against standalone client tools? Once again I’m left with the feeling that senior people in Redmond have little idea what’s going on in the real world and more importantly are insulated from the impact that their decisions have on the bottom line. On the positive side, though, Microsoft’s actions have given companies like XLCubed the breathing space they needed to innovate and survive.