Four years is an eternity in enterprise software development. Is it time to bring Explorer’s mojo back with a revised product roadmap?
Pity poor SAP BusinessObjects Explorer. Born as a poster child for innovation in business intelligence, it became a foster child- passed from product owner to product owner without a devoted and loving parent. Customers had their own reasons for not adopting Explorer, the most significant reason being- at least historically- licensing costs. I’ve been a passionate advocate of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, giving many presentations to BI administrators over the years beginning with “Deploying BI to the Masses using SAP BusinessObjects Explorer” at the 2009 Global BusinessObjects Network (GBN) conference in Dallas, Texas. In my experience, most SAP BI customers have stuck largely with Web Intelligence and Crystal Reports, with a smattering of Xcelsius dashboards. But customers who have adopted Explorer really love the tool and have made significant investments in it.
The current state of affairs is unfortunate, because if you’ve seen a SAP HANA demo (and who hasn’t?), you’ve most likely seen a demonstration of Explorer and how briskly it interacts with large volumes of data in the SAP HANA platform. SAP’s most unloved BI tool demonstrates how lovely SAP HANA can be.
It’s been four years since SAP released a significant update to Explorer. SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 Feature Pack 3 was released on June 15, 2012 and brought many new features to the BI4 platform that missed the original GA date, including Explorer Exploration Views. At the time, Exploration Views was one of the key benefits SAP touted as part of Feature Pack 3. But four years without innovation is an eternity in enterprise software years.
The SAP Digital Board Room is the spiritual successor to Explorer, not because of its feature set (although it does offer some of Explorer’s faceted navigation capabilities), but because of who its target user is (see my recent SAP Community Network article, Thoughts on the SAP Digital Boardroom). But the SAP Digital Board Room was not designed to provide a home for legacy on-premise Explorer information spaces.
As SAP focuses on bringing the second generation of Lumira and Design Studio to life, it seems likely that another year or possibly two will pass before Explorer’s search and exploration capabilities are fully incorporated into Lumira. But what will the delay mean for current Explorer customers, whose pain in dealing with Adobe Flash is second only to Web Intelligence customers dealing with Oracle Java? How should we reconcile SAP’s commitment to not expire BI content with the marketplace’s rejection of legacy technology like Adobe Flash? And if not from Explorer, where will the next business intelligence breakthrough for casual business users come from?
The future of Flash may no longer be in the hands of Adobe but instead in the hands of IT security.
It hasn’t been a great month for Adobe Flash. Both Google and Mozilla took extraordinary steps to temporarily disable Adobe Flash from their respective browsers, bringing disruption to SAP Dashboards (see related BusinessObjects Board article).
Adobe released a patch and all was well again, but isn’t it really just a matter of time before we’ll be going through the same exercise? There’s a growing chorus in the mainstream press, not just the technical press, to walk away from Adobe Flash.
While the Occupy Flash movement (yes, there is a movement) advocates letting “your IT department know you can do without Flash”, there are some obvious places (like Explorer and Dashboards/Xcelsius) where the Adobe Flash Player is required by SAP BusinessObjects.
Songify your #SAPBI4#BI41 exp. ** AM I BORN TO DIE by Tim Eriksen (Cold Mountain) ** Dealing w/ BusObject Explorer & #XC Xcelsius
Unfortunately, there are also several less-than-obvious places (see related article, Adobe Flash- Dying but not Dead Just Yet).However, much of everyday web browsing no longer requires the Adobe Flash Player. I was motivated by the recent controversy to remove Adobe Flash from my two Macs, just to see what would happen. I’ll limit Adobe Flash to my Microsoft Windows VM that I use at work.
SAP customers have endured similar scenarios with the Java Runtime Engine and Web Intelligence. But unlike Java, which still manages to have multiple dependencies in today’s enterprise, there are fewer reasons to rely on Adobe Flash and IT security may act more quickly to eliminate it completely from corporate desktops. Mainstream web sites like YouTube no longer require Adobe Flash (and let’s be honest, many organizations prevent you from watching grumpy cat videos at the office anyway).
SAP’s strategy for Dashboards and Explorer has been to leave them as-is as new plug-in free tools like Design Studio and Lumira increase in both maturity and adoption. That strategy assumes that Adobe will continue to support Flash indefinitely, allowing SAP customers to continue to use Dashboards and Explorer content even though the tools no longer receive investment. However, the future of Flash may no longer be in the hands of Adobe but instead in the hands of IT security, keen to remove Flash from the enterprise. This change of direction will to put more pressure on business intelligence competency centers to retire SAP Dashboards and Explorer more quickly than anticipated, and earlier than the current SAP BI roadmap will comfortably allow.
How are Adobe Flash vulnerabilities affecting your BI strategy? Is your organization under pressure to retire Adobe Flash? Please share a comment below.
After the candles are blown out, here are some things to work on during the next year.
Happy Third Birthday, SAP BusinessObjects BI 4.0! You came into the world on September 16, 2011, after a lengthy gestation. We’ve made a lot of memories together, from your birth to taking your first steps. Potty training took a bit longer than expected, but we eventually got there with your BI 4.1 release. And I’ve mostly gotten over that time you pooped in the bathtub. As the parent of three children, I’m familiar with children moving from “baby” to “toddler” to “preschooler”. Software doesn’t mature in the same way as human children. But just like with humans, some things that were expected, manageable or even “cute” in earlier years become wearisome after three years. So I’d like to mention ten things that I hope you’ll work on before your fourth birthday.
10. Group Hierarchy tree control with “too many objects”
We’re thankful that after three years, the “too many objects” error is largely solved in the BI Launch Pad (see related article, Too Many Objects in Your BI Launch Pad). I realize that BI Launch Pad users outnumber Central Management Console users. But any administrator with a large BI installation knows how tedious it is to live without a decent tree control.
9. User search feature in CMC
There are a lot of user attributes beyond just title and description. And I’d like to search any of them, thank you. Isn’t this just a few extra lines of code?
8. Server search feature in CMC
Although most servers are appropriately named, sometimes they just aren’t. Please make it easier to find a server by type (Adaptive Processing Server, Crystal Reports Cache Server) regardless of what somebody else decided to name it.
7. SAP BusinessObjects Design Studio server installation
We’ve suffered through poor SAP BusinessObjects Explorer administration since Explorer debuted as Polestar on the XI R2 platform. As you fold Explorer functionality into Lumira, please fold its administrative tasks into the Central Management Console (see related article, Family Planning).
5. Web Intelligence panel preference
Thankfully you provide a script, setGroupPreferences (see SAP KB 1659566 or SAP KB 1816617), but even simpler would be the ability to set the default Web Intelligence report panel via the CMC. But even better would be retiring the Java report panel in favor of a single kick-a__ HTML 5 panel. Which leads us to number 4.
Monitoring was a big marquee feature of the BI 4.0 launch. It’s a great first step, but it’s time to show us a more mature second generation of this important feature. Oh, and the Adobe Flash interface needs to go (see related article, Adobe Flash- Dying but not Dead Just Yet).
2. Promotion Management/Lifecycle Management
Everyone thought the Import Wizard was evil. Until it went away. Like monitoring, this was a marquee feature of the BI 4.0 and rightly so. Also like monitoring, it re-appeared in BI 4.1 largely unchanged.
There are over 80 articles in the SAP knowledge base about platform search. Most of them highlight a design flaw or document a workaround, which isn’t terribly flattering. Given that platform search is often the first feature a new user will try, it’s time to put away the duct tape and introduce the next generation of platform search to the SAP BI platform.
Make a wish, blow out the candles, and enjoy some well-deserved cake. But I hope you’ll take these things to heart over the next year.
What are your thoughts after three years of the SAP BI4 platform?
Are SAP BI customers ready to trade in the Porsche 911 for a Tesla?
Yesterday I installed the latest updates from Microsoft on my Windows 8.1 laptop. Originally promised as Windows 8.1 Update 2 with a revised start menu, Microsoft stripped the release down to just a few new features, holding back the best stuff for next year’s release of what everyone expects to be Windows 9 Windows 10 (see related Computer World article, Pointless Windows 8.1 Update 2 shows Microsoft has given up on Windows 8). New features are always welcome, no matter how small. But Microsoft seems to be struggling to achieve the annual OS updates that Apple has been delivering for the past several years, including this year’s forthcoming iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite (see related article from The Verge, The 22 most important things Apple announced at WWDC 2014).
SAP has also had difficulty finding a definitive cadence with its updates to the SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence platform. After the much-delayed BI 4.0 and nice but feature-lite BI 4.1, 2014 was supposed to be the year of the rumored BI 4.2. But instead, it’s been the year of integration of SAP Lumira and SAP Lumira Server (and therefore SAP HANA) into the existing BI 4.1 release. The integration kit between the two BI platforms was shown earlier this year at SAP SAPPHIRE in Orlando, with the SAP BI4 platform described as a classic Porsche 911 and the Lumira Server platform described as a cutting-edge Tesla. But the integration kit is still in ramp-up awaiting general availability.
There’s no BI 4.2 on the 2014 release calendar (see related SAP BusinessObjects Maintenance Schedule Calendar). In fact, even the year-end release of BI 4.1 SP5 has recently disappeared from the calendar, no doubt a casualty of SAP transitioning BI 4 platform development to Bangalore as all-things-Lumira takes center stage in SAP offices around the globe. So it looks like SAP BusinessObjects users will end 2014 with two versions of Crystal Reports, two semantic layer designers (the Universe Design Tool and the Information Design Tool), three versions of Web Intelligence (Java, HTML, and Rich Client), two dashboarding tools (Xcelsius/Dashboards and Design Studio), Explorer effectively marooned on an Adobe Flash desert island, and now two BI platforms- the classic SAP BI4 platform and the new HANA-based Lumira Server platform. And no point release to the BI4 platform to continue progress on shrinking functionality gaps.
Yesterday, SAP announced a new BI Strategy and Direction webcast for September 9, 2014. SAP executive Jayne Landry along with Ty Miller, Blair Wheadon, and even my friend, co-worker, and SAP Mentor Greg Myers will discuss the future of SAP’s BI initiatives. You can post questions to Twitter using the #askSAP hashtag (see Jayne Landry’s blog, Unleash Your Collective Insight, and register for the webcast). September 9 is also the rumored date for Apple to announce it’s latest iPhone and iPad models, although it’s latest iOS 8 and OS X Mavericks will continue to support a large number of Apple customers with older devices.
At least we’ll see how much gas is left in the Porsche 911 tank.
Declaring Adobe Flash “dead” sadly does not make it so.
At this year’s SAP SAPPHIRE conference Ty Miller, SAP VP of Solution Management, declared that “Flash is dead!”. He was referring, of course, to SAP’s dashboard roadmap and the transition from Adobe Flash-based Xcelsius/Dashboards to HTML5-based Design Studio (see related article, The Future of SAP Dashboards). While that high-profile transition is well underway, Adobe Flash is still lurking in other dark corners of the SAP BI platform.
Adobe Flash in the Central Management Console
The Monitoring dashboard introduced with the BI 4.0 Central Management Console is built with Adobe Flash. Two years ago, Mirko Langhorst posted the following on the SAP Idea Place:
We would like to totally get rid of Flash, the component in the CMC using Flash is the new Monitoring application. It would be great to change this HTML5, so the CMC would become Flash-free
Sadly, SAP buried this idea in the SAP Idea Graveyard, tagging it as “Not Planned by SAP”. Which is unfortunate, because the monitoring dashboard isn’t the only source of Adobe Flash frustration in the BI platform. Or just frustration in general (see related article, Less Flash, More Substance for SAP Business Intelligence Monitoring).
The Visual Difference feature introduced with the BI 4.0 Central Management Console is built with Adobe Flash.
Adobe Flash is used by the Override Settings in Promotion Management. And as an aside, all but the latest support packs of the BI platform use the much maligned Apache Derby for overrides (see SAP Mentor Greg Myers’ epic article, Derby Maybe).
Adobe Flash in the BI Launch Pad
Content Linking with BI Workspaces
Not content to limit use of Adobe Flash to the Central Management Console, SAP uses Adobe Flash in its implementation of BI Workspace content linking in the BI Launch Pad.
Crystal Reports for Enterprise Prompts
Crystal Reports for Enterprise uses Adobe Flash for scheduled prompts.
Crystal Reports 2013 does not use Adobe Flash.
I haven’t mentioned SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, but SAP’s recent plans to fold it into SAP Lumira (and therefore SAP HANA) have effectively marooned it on an Adobe Flash island (see SAP executive Jayne Landry’s related article, Run Simple: Convergence of the SAP BusinessObjects BI Product Portfolio). It’s likely that any Explorer replacement will be built on HTML5, not Adobe Flash. But it’s unclear when SAP intends to deliver Explorer-like functionality by Lumira or any other tool in the BI platform.
Dashboards and Xcelsius
Of course, we can’t forget that SAP Dashboards require Adobe Flash at runtime.
Time to Retire Adobe Flash in SAP BI Platform
A decade ago, Adobe Flash had its place providing rich visuals for web applications. In today’s mobile and cloud-centric world, Adobe Flash is a relic. Instead of visual excitement, it generates support and security anxiety. For example, Apple last week took the drastic step of disabling all versions of Adobe Flash except the latest 126.96.36.199 (see related Apple bulletin). But this is two versions ahead of SAP, which has only recently added official support for version 12 in its latest patch levels of the BI platform.
Update (September 17, 2015): SAP has indicated that Promotion Management in BI 4.2 has been rewritten to no longer require Adobe Flash. However, SAP has not published a roadmap to address these other Adobe Flash dependencies.
Update (November 30, 2018): As of July 17, 2018 with the release of SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.2 SP6, ALL of the Adobe Flash dependencies mentioned in this article have been replaced with HTML5 equivalents, making it a worthy upgrade from whatever patch level your organization is currently using.
Adobe Flash no longer belongs in enterprise software.
This article is my 400th published blog article. Thanks for reading!
Monitoring, along with Platform Search, Promotion Management (formerly Lifecycle Management), and Visual Difference, was introduced as a marquee feature of the SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 platform, the first major release of the platform bearing SAP’s distinctive fingerprints. But after the initial fanfare of the BI 4.0 launch, SAP seemed satisfied that these features could appear on a checklist of “enterprise BI” features. None of these capabilities received significant updates in last year’s BI 4.1 update (although to be fair, there have been modest enhancements in support packs 1 and 2, with more rumored for the upcoming Support Pack 3).
SAP BusinessObjects BI 4 Monitoring suffers from two key deficiencies. First, the well-documented reliance on Apache Derby as a trending database on the back end (see related series of articles from EV Technologies, Demolition Derby). Second, the front-end is built with Adobe Flash. While this “rich interface” seemed like a good idea five years ago on the BI 4.0 drawing board, the use of Flash is now a liability. The Adobe Flash plug-in is crash-prone and a source of security issues and frequent patch updates. And as we’ve seen with SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, the use of an Adobe Flash interface seems to actually slow SAP’s ability to innovate (a View SQL button, anyone?).
The monitoring engine is an important feature of the SAP BusinessObjects platform. However, its implementation in BI 4.0 was only a first step. The SAP roadmap for dashboards eschews Adobe Flash in favor of HTML5 (see related article, The Future of SAP Dashboards). And while its roadmap is less clear, it’s reasonable to assume that the next release of Explorer-like functionality will share and extend the HTML5 technology present in SAP Lumira. In a similar way, it’s critical that both Apache Derby and Adobe Flash are quickly phased out of SAP’s BI platform.
Nobody demos an administrator’s tool like the Central Management Console from a keynote stage. So it’s easy for SAP product managers to nix enhancements and spend limited resources elsewhere. But keeping less-visible or vocal IT managers and administrators energized about the BI platform is just as important as C-level executives and power users. I hope SAP will take a second look at the enterprise features of their enterprise BI platform and take the next steps to continue their evolution and innovation.
What are your impressions of the BI 4.x monitoring engine?
Some serious (really) reflection on the future of the SAP BI platform.
Last month, I took a light-hearted look at the future of the SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence platform (see related article, A Glimpse of SAP BusinessObjects BI 5.0). This month, I’d like to make some serious predictions about what the next major iteration of SAP’s BI platform will look like. There’s no public roadmap or timetable for the next major release. SAP is putting the final touches on BI 4.1– which should go into General Availability (GA) later this year. And SAP is already making noises about BI 4.2 coming in 2014.
But it’s fun to dream. Let’s begin!
64-bit Client Tools
I predict that the first broad theme of the BI 5.0 release will be fully 64-bit code. With the server platform already mostly (but not entirely) 64-bit, I predict that BI 5.0 will be the first release of SAP’s BI suite to not include 32-bit client tools. By the time BI 5.0 arrives, 32-bit Windows XP will be officially retired and most corporate desktops will be running modern 64-bit operating systems.
SAP hasn’t made any official announcements, but to get to a 64-bit-only world, we’ll need a transition period where client tools are, like SAP Lumira (formerly SAP Visual Intelligence), offered in both 32-bit and 64-bit editions. SAP Data Services already offers its design tools in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors. SAP Lumira was exclusively 64-bit when introduced, but enough customers balked so SAP responded with a 32-bit edition (SAP Visual Intelligence 1.07 in December 2012). For Not So Big Data, I guess.
Some of the existing 32-bit client tools, such as Crystal Reports 2011/2013, have already been classified as “legacy,” meaning that SAP will use the transition to 64-bit to leave these tools in the cyber dustbin of history. Here are some of the side-effects of a 64-bit-only future.
The End of Desktop Intelligence (finally)
While SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 marked the formal end of Desktop Intelligence, this year’s BI 4.1 will mark the formal return of Desktop Intelligence. Sort of (see related article, Desktop Intelligence – Back for a Limited Time). But as Desktop Intelligence is a 32-bit client, it will not find a home in the brave new world of BI 5.0. Unless SAP reconsiders my Desktop Intelligence fantasy (see related article, Hell Freezes Over).
The End of Crystal Reports 2011/2013 and Business View Manager
As part of the BI 4.0 launch, SAP introduced Crystal Reports for Enterprise, a fresh start for Crystal Reports based on the Eclipse platform. Although a feature gap presently exists between Crystal Reports 2011 (soon to be Crystal Reports 2013) and Crystal Reports for Enterprise, the gap will be largely closed. Expect Crystal Reports for Enterprise 5.0 to be the only edition of Crystal Reports compatible with the BI 5.0 suite. And goodbye Business View Manager (and therefore Business Views). It was fun while it lasted.
The End of Xcelsius
With the road map for SAP Dashboards paving a freeway to Design Studio (see related articles, The Future of SAP Dashboardsand Between an Xcelsius Rock and a Dashboard Design Hard Place), expect Dashboards (formerly known as Xcelsius) to not be part of the BI 5.0 suite. Buried next to it will be Live Office (we’re hearing rumors of Live Office functionality moving to Analysis for Microsoft Office) and Query as a Web Service (QaaWS).
The End of the (Classic) Universe
Although it’s entirely possible that BEx will be the only supported semantic layer in BI 5.0 (just kidding), it’s more likely that the classic UNV universe will be retired in favor of the UNX universe. The current Universe Design Tool (formerly known as Designer) is 32-bit code that will not be transitioning to 64-bit. Expect this one to be as controversial as the retirement of Desktop Intelligence, with the current UNX generating Information Design Tool widely perceived as immature in comparison to its 32-bit UNV generating ancestor.
Plug-In Free Browsing
I predict that the second broad theme of the BI 5.0 suite will be plug-in free browsing, largely based on HTML 5. Not only will this move be good news for desktops, it will help SAP further its “Mobile First” strategy for analytics.
The End of Adobe Flash
I predict that BI 5.0 will be the first version of the platform to completely eliminate Adobe Flash. I killed off the 32-bit Xcelsius/Dashboards tool in the previous section. The other major component relying on Adobe Flash is the data discovery tool known as Explorer. While the upcoming Explorer 4.1 architecture will largely be unchanged from the current 4.0, expect Explorer to either gradually or abruptly end its dependence on Adobe Flash (see related article, Family Planning).
The End of Java
I predict that BI 5.0 will be the first version of the platform to eliminate both ActiveX and Java plug-ins. While Crystal Reports on the BI 4.0 platform still offers ActiveX and Java-based viewers in addition to HTML, expect them to be retired in favor of an HTML 5 approach. Similarly, Web Intelligence 4.0 offers both a Web and a “Rich Internet Application” (aka Java) edition. Unfortunately, the Rich Internet Application offers robust functionality compared to its “Poor Internet Application” web-based cousin (see related article, The Other Web Intelligence Feature Gap). But expect this to change. With Tableau having recently introduced mobile and web authoring in Tableau 8 (see related article, Tableau 8 Roadshow), perhaps we’ll see similar functionality in Visual Intelligence- and hopefully Web Intelligence- long before BI 5.0 arrives.
Not Your Father’s BW
I predict that the third broad theme of BI 5.0 will be a reimagined Business Warehouse that fully embraces technology from both SAP HANA and SAP Sybase (for the latter, see SAP Mentor Clint Vosloo’s related SCN article, SAP’s big play in the EDW Space – But does any-one know about it?). Unlike traditional BusinessObjects customers who are told that all of their favorite toys are being taken away, BW customers are reassuringly told that “BW isn’t going anywhere”. BW may not be going anywhere, but it will be going faster.
As SAP HANA matures we’ll see it transform from one of many possible database foundations for BW to the premier database foundation for BW. SAP HANA is also moving from simply a database server to a robust application server. Read this excerpt from Thomas Jung’s recent article about SAP HANA Extended Application Services,
The core concept of SAP HANA Extended Application Services is to embed a full featured application server, web server, and development environment within the SAP HANA appliance itself. However this isn’t just another piece of software installed on the same hardware as SAP HANA; instead SAP has decided to truly integrate this new application services functionality directly into the deepest parts of the SAP HANA database itself, giving it an opportunity for performance and access to SAP HANA differentiating features that no other application server has.
So it’s likely that SAP HANA DNA will show up in the BI 5.0 platform in places that we don’t expect it today.
The Road Ahead
If these predictions are correct, a lot of legacy code will be pruned from the SAP BI platform. Could SAP BI 5.0 be the lean and fast Snow Leopard edition I’ve been waiting for (see related article, SAP BusinessObjects Snow Leopard Edition)? We must wait and see.
What are your thoughts about a future BI 5.0 platform?
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.
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.
SAP could use a little family planning with its data visualization offerings.
UPDATE 06/11/2013: SAP Visual Intelligence was rebranded in May 2013 as SAP Lumira, but most of these points remain valid. I’ll revisit this topic when the new Mobile BI 5.0 app is released later this year.
Coke. Diet Coke. Coke Zero. Cherry Coke. These are all members of the Coca-Cola product family. Well, of course there’s the oddball Tab.
SAP Visual Intelligence. SAP Predictive Analysis. Both members of the SAP BusinessObjects Explorer family, which includes Explorer for the web and Explorer for iOS.
With its proliferation of product names, the Explorer story is difficult to get right the first time. And many people can’t tell the story without breaking into a smirk when they say “Polestar”. But seriously, there’s a bit of branding confusion going on here.
And the confusion isn’t just in the branding.
Take SAP Visual Intelligence, affectionately known as “Visi”. It was launched at the May 2012 SAPPHIRE conference, but the news was lost in that event’s SuccessFactors love fest. It didn’t help that SAP Visual Intelligence 1.0 only worked with SAP HANA. Even though support for other data sources was “coming soon” (and as of this writing, built into its latest versions), customers only heard “Visual Intelligence, HANA, blah, blah, blah.” The product is introducing new functionality at a blistering (and highly commendable) rate- SAP is currently shipping SAP Visual Intelligence 1.0.7- but customers can have difficulty wrapping their heads around the current state of the product. SAP is also trying to have it both ways, omitting the BusinessObjects brand to show that Visual Intelligence is a stand-alone product ala Tableau. But still stressing that it’s tied to the SAP BusinessObjects platform, with the ability of SAP Visual Intelligence 1.0.4 and higher to export data sets to Explorer (and therefore to the Explorer mobile app as well).
And take Explorer. Explorer came to the 4.0 platform without any new features (Exploration Views were not introduced until Feature Pack 3- see related article, Future Pack 3), unless its inability to consume legacy UNV universes is a feature. Explorer 4.0 only supports UNX universes generated by the Information Design Tool. And forget about OLAP universes, Mr. Bradbourne.
The Diversified Semantic Layer opined in a recent podcast that Explorer Gets No Love. User adoption of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer has grown at a slower than desired rate since its introduction.
I found it curious that last November’s ASUG webcast, What is coming in BusinessObjects BI 4.1, did not mention what is coming to Explorer 4.1. Or Visual Intelligence. Or Predictive Analysis. So something is coming, but what could it be? On March 13, 2013, SAP product manager Mani Srinivasan will share some of the details in an ASUG webcast, What’s New in Explorer 4.1 / Visual Intelligence. Here’s what I’m hoping to see in his PowerPoint deck.
Unified Branding. Just like Coke, Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, and Coke Zero, these products should fly under a single banner. SAP sales reps, partners, and customers would all benefit from an easier story to tell. My guess is that the product banner would be “Visual Intelligence” – Visual Intelligence Desktop, Visual Intelligence Desktop with Predictive Analysis, Visual Intelligence Web (currently Explorer) and Visual Intelligence Mobile (currently Explorer for iOS). UPDATE: Of course we all know now that the single banner for branding is SAP Lumira (see related article, Goodbye SAP Visual Intelligence, Hello SAP Lumira).
Reduced Dependence on Adobe Flash. Adobe Flash provides the visual pizazz for data exploration for Explorer in a web browser. However, there are many portions of the Explorer web product where Adobe Flash offers no value-add. These elements should be redesigned without Adobe Flash.
CMC-based Administration. Most of the administration of Explorer occurs in the Adobe Flash-based Explorer application, inside of the user-facing BI Launchpad instead of the administrator-facing Central Management Console (CMC). Administrators should be able to right-click on an Information Space or Exploration View from the CMC and perform common tasks such as copy, move, schedule, and delete. An improved version would relocate administrative features, particularly around scheduling, to the CMC. Scheduling of information spaces should share features already available to Crystal Reports and Web Intelligence, particularly the ability to respond to events.
Tighter Integration with BI Launchpad. Explorer 4.0 made some much needed steps in the right direction, but additional integration is necessary. As with the CMC, common functions should be possible by right-clicking.
Query Panel Feature Parity with Web Intelligence. The current Explorer query panel does not have all of the functionality of its Web Intelligence cousin. A “view SQL” button, anyone? This feature gap should be closed starting with BI 4.1 and continuing through subsequent releases. And if it is possible to redesign the Explorer query panel without Adobe Flash, SAP should do so.
Improved Semantic Layer Support. I must admit, I’ve been disappointed with the rate of maturity of the Information Design Tool since its launch. It still needs some additional usability features and refinement that would accelerate customers’ ability to port their universes from UNV to UNX format. And Explorer 4.1 should allow Mark Bradbourne to build UNX-bassed Information Spaces on OLAP data sources. Lastly, I understand SAP’s desire to steer customers to the new UNX format. But if SAP Visual Intelligence was able to add classic UNV support, Explorer should add it as well. That’s what being a family is all about.
UPDATE 06/11/2013: SAP BusinessObjects Explorer 4.1, now in ramp-up, adds UNV support to Explorer. Classic UNV support was also quietly reintroduced in BI 4.0 via SP6 (see related article, Hacking SAP BusinessObjects Explorer 4.0).
Will there be Explorer integration with Mobile BI? Or something else?
Explorer was SAP’s first mobile BI application. So color me surprised that Dashboards 4.0 and Design Studio have been integrated into the Mobile BI app and Explorer is still stand-alone. But, the vendor landscape has changed. Perhaps SAP has a different strategy in mind? Perhaps Explorer will remain separate. Here’s why.
I recently attended The Tableau Experience road show (see related article, The Tableau Experience) and was impressed by the simplicity of the product line. Tableau Desktop, Tableau Server, Tableau Public (cloud) and Tableau Mobile. If Visual Intelligence represents SAP’s response to Tableau Desktop, what about the rest of Tableau’s offering?
Visual Intelligence Mobile is simple – just rebrand the Explorer app. Done. Problem solved.
Visual Intelligence Cloud is also pretty simple – most of the plumbing is already in SAP’s On Demand offerings.
But what about SAP Visual Intelligence Server to go head-to-head with Tableau server? All SAP needs to do here is simplify and repackage the existing BI 4.0 platform. A hypothetical SAP Visual Intelligence Server could be fashioned by combining the CMS + iFRS/oFRS (input and output file repository servers) + Explorer servers (master, index, search, explorer) + Adaptive Processing Server + Adaptive Job server. And voila. A new departmental visualization product to complement SAP Crystal Server and SAP BusinessObjects Edge.
UPDATE 06/11/2013: SAP has announced that SAP Mobile BI 5.0 will fold Explorer functionality into a single app for all content types, so I was wrong on this point (see related article, SAP BusinessObjects Mobile BI 5.0). No standalone Explorer/Visual Intelligence/Lumira mobile app. At least not yet.
I’ve been sharing my enthusiasm for Explorer since my first Explorer presentation at the 2009 GBN conference. A business intelligence tool for casual users that requires almost no training. SAP’s dashboarding tool for business users (see related article, Thoughts on Xcelsius). Based on this recent post on SCN by Saskia Battersby, General Manager of BI in Solution Management at SAP, I believe we will see some of the enhancements I am proposing introduced with BI 4.1 and BI 4.2 later this year:
“Over time you can expect to see these tools to become more integrated (in both naming and capabilities) as well see a dramatic evolution in providing superior visual analysis which will serve as a foundation for a next generation of self-service BI.”
Xcelsius is not dead. But neither is speculation about its future.
With the introduction of the SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 Feature Pack 3 ramp-up now behind us (see related article, Future 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.
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 Xcelsiuson 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.
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.