Client Tools

XLCubed (and a rant about Microsoft’s client tool strategy)

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.

14 thoughts on “XLCubed (and a rant about Microsoft’s client tool strategy)

  1. I couldn\’t agree more. I run the B.I. department in a small telecommunications business with a large warehouse and about 50 knowledge workers consuming warehouse information. We built it on the platform of SSAS with Proclarity as our OLAP and dashboard tool.  The success of the project was due in no small way due to the Proclarity uptake with knowledge workers. However, I can\’t get any sense of direction out of Microsoft. Their support of Proclarity in their product line is pathetic. (Although I look forward to hearing them try again at the BI Conference in Seattle in October.) Meanwhile, I am experimenting with Microcharts and am working with XLCubed with an eye to moving our dashboard over to their toolset.  XLCubed is everything Microsoft isn\’t. They\’re approachable, eager and informative, and the tool\’s ability to create data rich, intuitive dashboards is exactly what I was looking for.  Should be a no brainer wouldn\’t you think?

  2. As an MS outsider I guess that what will happen with client tools from MS is decided by the release cycles of MS-Office. Today we have Office web components as the client tool in Performance Point and the possibility to add Excel 2007 spreadsheets as files or as Excel web service.
    Have a look at the ugly interface in the data mining prediction component in Performance Point and compare that with what you get with the Excel 2007 data mining add ins.
    The long term vision that I have heard is that the BI client front end is Excel and that the visualization tools in ProClarity will be part of the next release.
    Since it is a guess based on PowerPoint presentations I can be wrong.

  3. I totally agree.  Msft has stopped developmet on the leading client tool, ProClarity, and then puts out PerformancePoint with a time line of 2 years til the next version.  Doesn\’t seem to make much sense. 

  4. Anybody knows an alternative to ProClarity for its  more visual approach based analysis?  I mean seeing  spreadsheet and chart,  drilling down/up easily, saving views. Is there really no mature product outside there for this (plus reasonably priced and easy to use)? What are you telling your ProClarity users when they ask for some alternative to try out?

  5. Alejandro,
    Just about any client tool (including XLCubed) will do what you want, so I usually supply a list of tools they can check out to see what the customer likes. Panorama is the closest to Proclarity in terms of functionality but I would recommend digging a bit deeper into your users\’s requirements and looking at a range of options. See for a good list of what\’s out there.

  6. Hi Chris, thanks for the hints.Actually these days i am trying to update myself on client tools and was browsing this list you sent, but found it not very useful at first sight because i couldn\’t find a way to pick the 4 or 5 "best" ones to take a deeper look. The community reviews and votes (none to a handfull per product) seem still not enough to really give a strong hint.Anyway i started downloading some random products from the list and got a total mix between unstable, inmature and difficult to use products and others that are good but don\’t are what you expect.I am leading a growing (but still small) data warehouse project that is implemented in 20 banks in 4 continents, and if we pick some product to recommend we need to strongly believe in it.We used to strongly recommend XLCubed before the microcharts stuff appeared but stopped as some features and general handling was a big buggy and it seemed that Excel 2007 would mean the end for it. I guess thats also why they made the strategical change to focus on microcharts. Panorama we tried and liked a lot but its not a thin client as ProClarity Desktop (which is our main analysis recommended tool), installation is a headeache (or was at least) and it was too expensive.Tableau we loved but is is kind of too advanced for our business users and also a bit too expensive.Dundas OLAP objects looks very interesting but you can\’t use it "out of the box" (or?).So we are still looking for a ProClarity clone that is independently developed and where we can expect some further development over next couple of years. A product that is highly intuitive, easy to install, cheap, with some visual browsing and that can be explained in a couple of hours to somebody coming from the business side. For more specific niche needs we can always make some special report or app and the Excel lovers will anyway not use anything else.Any additional hint is very welcome.Alejandrop.d. sorry for the so long comment

  7. PerformancePoint is a depressing product, they should have concentrated on Financial Planning and continued to have sold Proclarity in favor of the rather 2nd rate Business Scorecard Manager.
    I\’ve tested the Dundas OLAP components and they are a pretty good v1.0 product but are fairly limited in their functionality – I guess Dundas hope that MSFT will add this into the next version of RS.
    I\’ve also looked at Data Dynamics Analysis which isn\’t on the ssas site and is also a 1st generation product but offers great pivot table support but with more limited charts than Dundas.
    Finally it\’s worth taking a look at Strategy Comipanion – It\’s quite a mature product now and is doing well in the US and there is a small UK base.  It has amazing functionality for a thin client browser app.
    BTW While XLCubed is a great product if your interested in sparklines its probably worth taking a look at Bissantz who sell a very neet sparkline Excel addin for £30/user.

  8. imagine that. a dashboard tool written by someone who has actually read and understood information dashboard design and maybe even a little tufte. Astounding and a little depressing if you consider that the other 99% of dashboard tools out there aren\’t based on any design principals at all….
    I have to agree that it seems like microsoft (and a ton of other vendors) seem happy to trail behind when it comes to data visualizaton. Truly a shame. The literature is out there to guide development of really strong data visualizations into tools like SSRS, Performance Point, etc but very few vendors seem to be embracing them.  Here\’s hoping that picture changes in the future…

  9. I couldn\’t agree more with your opinion on ProClarity, Excel 2007 and PerformancePoint, Chris. Our situation is more of less the same as (No Name 24 July). We have hundreds users in the organisation (insurance industry) using ProClarity web professional. Currently we are holding on to ProClarity as the Excel is still 2003. We evaluated PerformancePoint – it\’s good for business planning tool but for cube client it\’s basically the same as ProClarity (except a bit of new dashboard features).
    I look forward to see you at SQLBits on 13th Sept.
    Vincent Rainardi

  10. Nicely put Chris, I couldn\’t agree more. I miss Proclarity since my old gig at Prologis and it was saddening to be going through a platform evaluation recently and not really being able to identify an OLAP tool with a wow factor better than Proclarity offered something like 5 years ago… Can\’t make SQLBitsIII but may well be in touch about Intelligencia sson – is it 2008 ready? Cheers, Will

  11. Hi Will,
    Intelligencia is indeed 2008 ready, and there will be a new release with some cool functionality very soon. It\’s not intended to compete in the Proclarity sector but I guess the fit depends on your requirements.

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