When a new product hits the market, the first thing people want to know is, what makes this version different from the old phone or camera or browser? Is it worth the time, trouble, and money to invest in it? Companies have the same questions when it comes to software launches. Like with the new addition to SAP’s BI suite, Visual Intelligence.
This tool was introduced at the end of May to complement – not replace – SAP’s time-tested data exploration and visualization software, SAP BusinessObjects Explorer. At first glance, the two BI clients seem quite similar: they both have to do with data discovery and reporting; they both have a heavy focus on user-friendly graphics. So where exactly is the difference?
To find out, we spoke with Pierre Leroux, director of solution marketing for SAP’s BI portfolio. Leroux works specifically in the data discovery segment of BI, which includes SAP BusinessObjects Explorer and now SAP Visual Intelligence. He told us exactly what Visual Intelligence can do that BusinessObjects Explorer can’t, and what new features to expect in the upcoming releases. We’ve boiled down the interview to these five need-to-know facts. Click on the links below to read about them in more detail.
1. Connect to data in Excel, ERP, HANA
The first point on which SAP Visual Intelligence and SAP BusinessObjects Explorer diverge is data acquisition. “In Explorer, you could only access data sources that IT had previously published in a universe or in-memory appliance,” explains Leroux. “With Visual Intelligence, you’re not restricted like that.”
This software lets you connect to a personal data source, for example, Excel spreadsheets, as well as enterprise data sources, like ERP relational databases. You can also connect to SAP HANA and perform analyses on massive amounts of data, without having to acquire it first. Simply put, this capability allows users to conduct analyses on a wider range of data.
2. Data transformation – “the diamond in the rough”
After users acquire data from a given source, they’ll want to plug it in to analytical reports. But the data – as it existed in Excel or the ERP database – might not be suited for the analysis that users have in mind. They need to transform it first. This is a defining feature of SAP Visual Intelligence.
Leroux gives an example: “Say you’re doing a report on retail sales. You have data across five categories – Wal-Mart, Target, department stores, small convenience stores, and local stores. But you don’t really need detailed reporting on the last two categories. So you combine them – into ‘small stores’ – to make them less relevant. This is something you can do in a matter of seconds in Visual Intelligence,” he says. “You couldn’t even consider doing it in Explorer.”
The data transformation capabilities in Visual Intelligence are comparable to advanced reporting in Excel. But the key difference is that users don’t need a high level of expertise to do the same level of work in Visual Intelligence. This is because the SAP software automatically suggests changes.
“Everyone talks about the great visualizations in Explorer and Visual Intelligence, but I think data transformation is really the diamond in the rough,” says Leroux.
3. DIY graphics
The third key difference between SAP Visual Intelligence and BusinessObjects Explorer is in the visualization department. In SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, graphics are automatically generated. Visual Intelligence users will need to build their own. On the one hand, this allows for more tailored graphics – users can produce the exact visualizations that they actually are interested in consuming. On the other hand, this may require a little more knowledge.
“It’s not too complex,” says Leroux. “The software will take a lot of the workload off the user. But still, it’s not as simple as clicking on a data point and getting a visualization, like in Explorer.” In fact, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. From the beginning, Visual Intelligence has been targeted at a smaller, slightly more advanced group of analytics users than BusinessObjects Explorer.
4. Mobile connection for a desktop tool
With over a quarter million downloads in the iTunes Store, SAP BusinessObjects Explorer mobile app is SAP’s most popular mobile offering. Why then, did it launch SAP Visual Intelligence as a desktop tool? Doesn’t that go against the company’s “mobile first” development strategy? As Leroux explains it, it’s all part of the complementary way in which Visual Intelligence and BusinessObjects Explorer work together.
The workflow looks like this: The more advanced Visual Intelligence users acquire data they’re interested in exploring, transform it for reporting, and build interesting visualizations. They can then publish their analyses on the BI platform in the form of information spaces and make them available for other BI users to access – via iPad, iPhone, or Web browser.
So, while Visual Intelligence isn’t mobile in its own right, users can still access visualizations from their mobile device. This functionality will be available in the fall.
5. Road map of planned features
The initial release of SAP Visual Intelligence was in May and only allowed users to connect to a HANA data source. “While this was great news for our HANA customers,” says Leroux, “it left the majority of customers without the ability to try out Visual Intelligence. This is why we brought out two more releases right away in June and July.” These updates allowed Visual Intelligence users to connect to personal data sources and enterprise data sources, respectively.
The next release, set for September, will include connectivity to the SAP BusinessObjects universes. “This is especially important for our current BusinessObjects customers,” explains Leroux. “First, because they have invested quite a bit in building their universes over the past years, and without the connectivity, they can’t do any data discovery in Visual Intelligence. And second, because this is how users will be able to access visualizations from their mobile devices.”
Near the end of the year, another release will focus on delivering expanded language support. At the moment, Visual Intelligence is available only in English, but there are plans to add 9-10 languages before 2013.
“It’s a way of delivering updates like developers do for their iPhone and iPad apps,” says Leroux of the accelerated release schedule. “When we have something new and interesting available, we’ll deliver it right away. We’re not going to make our users wait several months.”