A Plug for your Adobe Flash Plug-In

Adobe really wants you to keep using your Flash player.

I was recently prompted to update my Adobe Flash player and was greeted by the following propaganda piece.

Update Adobe Flash Player

Great messaging from Adobe. You need our frequently insecure and unstable plug-in to play Facebook games and watch videos. No mention of “serious business productivity”. Or the fact that the upgrade may break your SAP BusinessObjects Xcelsius dashboards.

So please, for sake of usability, online security and stability, please update your Adobe Flash player. Pretty please? Before the Adobe Flash development team enters a recovery program for self harm.

Anyone up for a game of Farmville?

Between an Xcelsius Rock and Dashboard Hard Place

Xcelsius is not dead. But neither is speculation about its future.

Between an Xcelsius Rock and Dashboard Hard Place

With the introduction of the SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 Feature Pack 3 ramp-up now behind us (see related article, Feature Pack 3) and the North American SAP SAPPHIRE ahead of us (May 14-16, 2012), some SAP BusinessObjects customers are unsure how their dashboard and guided analysis strategies align with the SAP BusinessObjects product roadmap. Many feel like Homer Simpson, caught between a rock and a hard place.

Although the most visible conversations are happening on Twitter, many more conversations are occurring within business intelligence competency centers around the world. Xcelsius, now rebranded as SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards Dashboard Design, is being attacked on two fronts. The first front is, sadly, the vendor’s own self-inflicted wounds. The second is the emergence of the post-PC tablet era. The combined effect of both on customers is somewhere between mild disorientation and paralysis.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

Xcelsius 2008 seemed to get lost during SAP’s acquisition of BusinessObjects. The product was legendary for service packs and fix packs that seemed to introduce more bugs than bug fixes. And it failed to keep pace with both simple updates to the Adobe Flash Player and more substantial innovations of the underlying Adobe Flex platform. As recently as September 2011, SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards 4.0, the successor to Xcelsius 2008, shipped with only Adobe Flex 2 support. And that release only contained modest feature and productivity improvements. Although SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards 4.0 Feature Pack 3 (now in ramp-up) supports Flex 4, it is reasonable to interpret these missteps and others as an indication of SAP’s lack of interest.

The Failure of Mobile Flash

Vendor missteps would be enough to give customers some reservations. But Xcelsius has also been attacked on the mobile front. There is a long list of companies caught completely off guard by the success of Apple’s iPad. Enterprise stalwarts like Dell, Google, HP, Microsoft, and Blackberry/RIM have been outmaneuvered. So we shouldn’t be surprised that SAP was also caught a bit off guard and is coding furiously to catch up. To be honest, I expected the tablet wars to play out differently. I assumed Adobe would eventually get Flash working well on non-iOS mobile platforms and force Apple to begrudgingly accept it. For the record, I was also expecting HP to claim the #2 spot in the tablet market with Palm’s webOS (Thanks for nothing, Leo). Instead, the “tablet market” is currently the “iPad market” and will remain so for the foreseeable future. And rather than forge ahead with a dwindling number of mobile operating systems and device vendors, Adobe is pulling the plug on mobile Flash. Microsoft has since followed suit, dropping plans to develop mobile Silverlight, its Flash alternative.

SAP recently announced a “mobile first” strategy for business analytics. Should a “mobile first” guided analysis tool have dependencies on Adobe Flash and Microsoft Excel, neither of which run natively on today’s tablet devices? Is HTML 5 support really important when a native iOS app would satisfy the current iOS-dominated tablet market?

Should Organizations Continue Xcelsius Development?

So the big question remains. Should organizations invested in Xcelsius technology continue their Xcelsius development? My answer is a resounding “yes”. Customers who have already been successful with Xcelsius, who have determined their winner in the Coke vs. Pepsi taste test (QaaWS vs. Live Office), and made investments in licensing and training should continue to use the product with enthusiasm. Of course, that enthusiasm should be tempered. And new business requirements should always be weighed against any vendor’s up-to-date tool selection decision tree. Xcelsius should never be chosen as a development tool solely because a business user says “I need a dashboard”. Tool selection has always been nuanced and this fact is unchanged in the current product landscape.

Should Organizations Start Xcelsius Development?

What about SAP BusinessObjects customers not actively using Xcelsius? Their situation is different. Based on the current state of affairs (see related article Thoughts on Xcelsius), I am hesitant to recommend Xcelsius to customers not currently using it. Others may disagree, and that’s a conversation worth having in the social media marketplace and at Starbucks locations everywhere (see Donald MacCormick’s A New Lease of (HTML5) life for Xcelsius on the Antivia blog). But based on what is presently (and publicly) known, that is my recommendation. I may think differently after SAPPHIRE if the rumors about new products and product roadmaps are true, but I still believe Xcelsius is the new Desktop Intelligence. Xcelsius in its present form cannot go mobile without third-party help from vendors such as Antivia and Exxova. While existing Xcelsius users should eagerly evaluate these solutions, customers not currently using Xcelsius would be better served making investments in SAP’s own Mobile BI app or Mellmo’s RoamBI. Both tools leverage existing investments in Crystal Reports and Web Intelligence. And although Exploration Views, new in Feature Pack 3, are not a direct replacement for Xcelsius, they are a key component of SAP’s current mobile strategy.

Conclusion
At the recent SAP Insider BI2012 conference, there was standing room only for Scott Leaver’s “Future of Dashboard Design” session. Scott is the enthusiastic global solution manager for the Dashboard Design product line. Although customers are a bit disoriented, the fact that they showed up to pack the room should demonstrate to SAP that a future for Xcelsius is important to a substantial number of SAP BusinessObjects customers. Scott and his crew are passionate about the product and resolute in protecting and extending their customer’s technology investments. So the Xcelsius product line will continue to be supported. And it will be enhanced, with HTML 5 features promised for later in 2012.

But today, customers find themselves between an Xcelsius rock and a Dashboard hard place. They presently do not have all of the facts needed to move forward with confidence. No SAP reality distortion field can change this situation. Only shipping products can.

How has your organization’s dashboard and guided analysis strategy changed in the last 12 months? I’m eagerly expecting more news at SAP SAPPHIRE and hope in the meantime that SAP can facilitate a respectful and constructive conversation with its customers and partners.

Thoughts on Xcelsius

Is Xcelsius dead?

Last week, Xcelsius Guru Mico Yuk pondered on Twitter whether Xcelsius was dead.

 

This week, Steve Lucas, SAP’s General Manager for Business Analytics, provided new insight to SAP’s mobile business intelligence strategy in two blog posts entitled “The Demise of Flash and the Battle for the End-User Experience” and “Putting Mobile First and the New Business Intelligence Priorities”.  Steve lays out a three-point business analytics mobility strategy.

First, allow access to existing content like Web Intelligence and Crystal Reports via the SAP BusinessObjects Mobile BI app, currently on the Apple iPad and coming soon for other tablets. Second, provide “high-definition dashboards” using SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, soon to be extended with new functionality known as “exploration views”.  And third, a “completely open” development experience for custom business analytics applications on mobile devices. I assume this refers to the Sybase Unwired Platform.

So where does Xcelsius (known on the new BI 4.0 platform as SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards 4.0) fit into this three-point strategy?

It doesn’t.

Scroll to the very bottom of Steve’s remarks, where we learn that SAP will “deliver an HTML 5 version [of Xcelsius/Dashboards] in 2012”. But “this may not make life perfect”, which I interpret as an early indicator that the HTML 5 version won’t be as robust or powerful as the current Adobe Flash based product.

In my opinion, Xcelsius has become the new Desktop Intelligence. In the pre-web era, Desktop Intelligence was the only BusinessObjects reporting tool. But it was too wedded to Microsoft Windows to make an effective leap to the web browser, so Web Intelligence was created. In a similar way, Xcelsius is too wedded to the Adobe Flash platform to make the leap to mobile devices.

And just like multiple iterations of Web Intelligence were required before it came close enough to the capabilities of Desktop Intelligence, it may take multiple iterations of an HTML 5 product before it can fully replace Xcelsius.  But there isn’t time for multiple iterations – customers are demanding mobile analytics now.  And while mobile Adobe Flash solutions from Exxova or Antivia may bridge the gap, adopting Adobe Flash to mobile devices is a short term, not a long term strategy.  Which is why declaring a “mobile first” strategy makes sense.

SAP BusinessObjects customers do not need Xcelsius on their tablets.

They need business intelligence on their tablets. And even smaller mobile devices like smart phones.

Tablets have a unique user interface. A great mobile business analytics tool will design for the device, not retrofit existing paradigms, which explains why Mellmo has been successful with its RoamBI product.  It was designed from the ground up for the era of mobility.

As best as I can tell from this week’s strategy announcement, SAP is designating its upcoming Exploration Views (coming later this year in SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 Feature Pack 3) as its from-the-ground-up mobile analytics tool, not Xcelsius for HTML 5.  “Today, we call this SAP BusinessObjects Explorer” (are we going to call it something else tomorrow?).

This is not all bad news.  Just as SAP has protected customer investments in Desktop Intelligence with a lengthy rather than abrupt retirement, SAP is promising that it will protect customer investments in Xcelsius. And although it’s easy to poke fun of Desktop Intelligence today (see related Diversified Semantic Layer podcast, Die Deski Redux), it was only yesterday (OK, so it was 10 years ago) that Desktop Intelligence was absolutely the right answer for business intelligence.  In 2005, Xcelsius was the right answer – think of all the cool solutions that have been deployed since BusinessObjects purchased Infommersion. But in 2012, we need something else.

It’s OK to love technology. And its OK to cry when it lets you down and breaks your heart. But always love your users more.

Additional Materials

What do you think of SAP’s mobile business analytics strategy?

Visualizing the Perfect American Diet

Pie charts, in. Pyramids, out.

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled a new nutrition icon to replace the Food Pyramid- the MyPlate.  The visualization is intended to help Americans understand the proper amounts of fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy that should be in our diets.

USDA MyPlate
The USDA MyPlate replaces the Food Pyramid

But Brian Vastag, science reporter for The Washington Post, had this observation (click here to read full article):

Circular, with four colorful divisions to represent the four main food groups, the new plate looks just like a pie chart [emphasis added] — a description experts shun because, well, pie isn’t good for you.

Brian isn’t alone in thinking that pie charts aren’t good for you.  However, I believe a pie chart not only works because of the dinner plate metaphor but because it depicts only four data values.  Plus, the slices represent approximate and not precise amounts.  The main point of MyPlate is that half of our diet should be fruits and vegetables, but frequently isn’t.

Learn more about the USDA MyPlate at ChooseMyPlate.gov or follow MyPlate on Twitter.

DISCLAIMER: No SAP business intelligence products were used in the creation of the MyPlate.

What do you think of the USDA’s new MyPlate?  Think a bar chart would have been as memorable?

SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards 4.0 Cookbook

Authors Xavier Hacking and David Lai channel their inner Julia Child with tasty results.

Packt Publishing recently released SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards 4.0 Cookbook and I was pleased to receive an eBook edition to review.  Authors Xavier Hacking and David Lai channel their inner Julia Child with tasty results.

First of all, the book is truly a cookbook. So instead of thumbing through a reference manual that describes product functionality like chart components, dynamic visibility, and data access devoid of practical application, readers can easily find clearly organized recipes like “Opening up a Web Intelligence report using dashboard parameters”, “Building a pop-up screen”, or “Analyzing trends”.  There’s over 90 recipes to choose from, including 7 recipes for  data connectivity (even SAP BW) and 7 recipes for third-party components (from Antivia, Centigon Solutions, IdeaCrop, and Inovista). To help readers work through the recipes, a collection of sample Xcelsius (XLF) and Adobe Flash (SWF) files can be downloaded from the Packt Publishing web site.

Although the book is entitled “Dashboards 4.0 Cookbook”, most of the recipes can be baked with Xcelsius 2008 and do not require Dashboards 4.0, which is a huge plus. On the downside, I wished the book would more clearly indicate which recipes are specific to Dashboards 4.0 (and therefore not possible in Xcelsius 2008). One example is the recipe for “Using Universe queries”, as it requires Dashboards 4.0 and new UNX universes created with the SAP BusinessObjects Information Design Tool 4.0, not legacy UNV universes created with the Universe Design Tool. Also, integration with the SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence platform is shown using Enterprise XI 3.1, not BI 4.0. However, neither of these deficiencies take away from the usefulness of the cookbook. I would guess that the authors might easily address these items in a second edition timed for the release of BI 4.1.

As an instructor of SAP’s official BOX310 “Xcelsius 2008 Enterprise: Core & Connectivity” training class, I’m disappointed that the curriculum hasn’t been updated since the initial release of Xcelsius 2008. Students tend to leave the class unfulfilled and unprepared to use new and interesting features introduced through service packs. SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards 4.0 Cookbook not only covers these newer features, but presents them in a task-oriented “cookbook” format that allows readers to quickly find information on implementing specific functionality in their Xcelsius dashboards.

The SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards 4.0 Cookbook is available in paperback, PDF and ePub formats. Kindle readers should note that the ePub format is not natively supported; however, there are several tools available to convert ePub into something Kindle-friendly. As with any cookbook, the eBook PDF edition is loaded with full-color screenshots. Reading was therefore a bit tedious on a monochrome Kindle but glorious on my Apple iPad 2 using iBooks.

Learn more about Xavier Hacking by reading his blog or follow Xavier Hacking on Twitter

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

New Xcelsius Servers in SAP BusinessObjects Enterprise XI 3.1 SP3

The debut of the Dashboard Cache Server and Dashboard Processing Server

Patrice Le Bihan has recently (October 2010) posted a nice set of articles to the SAP Community Network wiki regarding the Xcelsius Cache Server and Xcelsius Processing Server added to SAP BusinessObjects Enterprise XI 3.1 SP3 (UPDATE: These servers have carried over to the BI 4.0 platform as the Dashboard Cache Server and Dashboard Processing Server). He covers why these new servers were added to the SAP BI architecture, how to enable them, how Xcelsius/QaaWS caching works, available tuning options, and sizing these new servers into your architecture.

Patrice, thanks for putting together this information.

Reporting Tool Shootout on Diversified Semantic Layer

Reporting Tool Shootout with the Diversified Semantic Layer

Due to some random iTunes announcement, the big media splash planned for the Diversified Semantic Layer was bumped off of the Apple home page at the last minute.  But a new episode of the Diversified Semantic Layer podcast, the Reporting Tool Shootout, is now live.  Join host Eric Vallo, SAP Mentor Jamie Oswald, and myself as we discuss the pros and cons of the current suite of business intelligence tools from SAP BusinessObjects: Web Intelligence, Crystal Reports, Xcelsius, and Explorer.  Or you could download The Beatles instead…

And for a close-up look at Xcelsius and BI Services, check out Josh Fletcher‘s inaugural Geek2Live podcast, also available from iTunes.

For the record, I am NOT the walrus.  And Jamie is not dead; it’s just a flesh wound .

Follow the Diversified Semantic Layer on Twitter, @DSLayered, or visit their web site.