I openly admit to being a business intelligence and analytics tool addict. When I come across news about a new and interesting offering, I simply can’t help myself… I usually end up downloading, playing with it and learning all about it. This year it feels like I have played with a zillion business intelligence vendor releases. I do have a backlog of blogs on a few: SAP Lumira 1.13, Microsoft Power BI, Tableau 8.1, Spotfire 6.0, Predixion, Solver, Pentaho, Jaspersoft, Datameer, Karmasphere, Splunk Hunk, Rapid Miner, R, IBM BigSheets and so on. I don’t blog about them all but I often tweet about them and include highlights of tools in various SlideShare decks.
I recently explored the new free MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop (formerly Visual Insight) that I saw being mentioned in the social Twitter-sphere. MicroStrategy is one of the market leaders in the professional business intelligence space. They have a broad and unified set of business intelligence capabilities. They are also innovative with a long history of being first or early to market with fairly nice offerings. In 2012 they ranked very high in the Gartner Magic Quadrant but this past year they dropped a bit. I wrote up some notes on that in an earlier blog. MicroStrategy is expensive in both licensing fees and build times. They are a traditional BI player with long semantic layer builds and a significant learning curve. The end results are great and their mobile BI solutions are truly best in class. They have been offering some free entry level solutions for a while now to take share in the Cloud BI space and in some other areas. The new free MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop appears to be their response to increasing market pressure from Tableau, Excel Power BI, SAP Lumira, Spotfire and other data discovery players.
After downloading and installing Analytics Desktop, I launched the app, watched the tutorials and looked through the the nice set of showcased examples and sample data – hmmmm, it looks a lot like Tableau’s opening view. They did a wonderful job fast-tracking the ramp up with this splash page. Ironically this was close to an idea that I had back in my Microsoft days for Excel 2013 Power View but it is challenging to get changes like this into Microsoft Office world – especially BI specific ideas for a product that is not only for BI. I was kindly shut down at the time but I did see that even Power BI comes with a gallery of samples too so maybe someone listened to me back in the day. : ) Anyway, kudos to MicroStrategy. The introduction, tutorials and samples were excellent. I also downloaded the PDF user guide. My only gripe was that the loud music and child voice narration in the tutorial videos was really annoying.
From here I went ahead and tried the data import process. It was easy. You can import data from file sources, databases, Hadoop HiveQL and Freeform SQL, SOQL, or Web Service XQuery scripts. You can also import a dashboard that another MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop user has shared with you. It does appear that you can mash up multiple data sources with limited automatic relationship detection based on column names. When you import data into MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop, the data is saved as a MicroStrategy in-memory OLAP Cube. You can define a data column as an attribute or metric, change the data type or rename data columns in a Data Preview panel. You can also assign geospatial roles or shape keys to your data for Map or Image Layout visualizations. I did not try a stored procedure so I do not know if those are supported in this release. Also I did not see any data cleansing, filtering, aggregation, transformation or deduplication type features in the data import process. The import was limited. Once data is loaded to the MicroStrategy in-memory OLAP Cube, there is an option for both full or incremental data refresh.
After I loaded a test Bike Buyer data set, I went on to building a few dashboards. Again it was pretty easy though I was not able to find Filters until I searched the user guide and re-watched the tutorial. Filters are hidden under the Show menu icon. Exploring the user interface, it is not anywhere near a Tableau-level benchmark. I did like the simple builds of basic views, nice selection of charts, drill-down grids, show data feature, search feature, exports, cascading filters that can have displays changed to save screen real-estate, ability to change threshold colors, ability to use a visualization as a filter with optional targeting of other visuals. I was disappointed in the “boxy” placement that quite a few BI tools still require in 2013. It would be soooo much nicer to have free form control on where to place charts on dashboards. I also was surprised by the use of Flash…uugh. Birst also suffers from a Flash UI. What is the future of Flash these days? HTML5 seems to be more future-friendly. Microsoft has gone in that direction for Power View migrating away from SilverLight. I was not able to find parameters and I am not sure if I adore the web-based UI when working on my desktop. There is a list of additional features, limitations and versions that you can reference here.
Speaking of charts, MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop has Grid, Heatmap/Treemap, Map, Network, Bar, Line, Scatter, Bubble, Pie, Ring, Area, Dual Axis and Combination Charts. All of these charts can be used to filter other charts for contextual dashboard creation. I did giggle again when I saw the MicroStrategy Sample Gallery and Data Sets – it looks exactly like Tableau’s. Even the demos look the similar. I do like that they included the raw data sets – that was something I was often asked to do as a BI Product Manager for groups that wanted to create their own demos but struggled finding the right data.
Once my dashboard was created, I could save it, email it, print it or export it to JPG, PDF or a MicroStrategy file. There are also options to create a new folder or export the data in the views.
All in all – for a freebie – the new MicroStrategy Analytics Desktop is decent. Will the data visualization freebies like this one, Power View now in Excel 2013, open source Pentaho, Jaspersoft and others put some pricing pressure on Tableau? Gee, I don’t know. I do know that Tableau is still the best in class and superior in deep data discovery feature sets right now to continue justifying the premium price tag. The market for basic data discovery and data visualization though is getting crowded. It will be fascinating to see where this all goes, how these basic free offerings mature in a year or two and what the market leaders add next to stay ahead of all the copy-cat vendors that are heavily investing since it sure seems like they are all fighting for the same segments of the business intelligence market.