Tableau Software wants data junkies to do the 'viz'

Startup launches free data visualization service

Data visualization vendor Tableau Software Inc. hopes to keep the pedal to the metal with the launch of a free service that brings sophisticated dashboards and charts to amateur spreadsheet jocks.

Called Tableau Public, the Web service offers all of the features of the Seattle startup's flagship desktop app, along with Web hosting of the user-created charts, all at zero cost.

Christian Chabot, data geek-turned-VC (Softbank)-turned-CEO of Tableau, said the company has invested millions of dollars into Tableau Public, which he believes will lead to the widespread popularization of 'vizs' -- the colorful, interactive charts built by Tableau users (to see some examples, check out Tableau's blog) -- have the potential to go as viral as a Linux or OpenOffice.org.

"We think millions of people will check it out," he said in an interview earlier this month. "If you look at the history of the Web, you can see it was originally all text. Then Flickr and Picasa exploded and images became a first-class citizen."

"The third type of content to arrive was video -- think Flash Video and YouTube," Chabot continued. "The fourth major type of content that people create is data. But no one yet has enabled it."

That is until Tableau Public, he said, which he wants "to be as fun and accessible as online video."

Independent analyst Curt Monash said Tableau Public "is both a good, cool idea and a public service, so I'd like to see broad uptake, but they don't seem to be investing the necessary marketing resources."

But Chabot insisted there are legions of stats junkies who would embrace this.

"Students. Bloggers. Journalists. Sports nuts -- they like data, but they would never consider themselves a business analyst," he said. "If you can use Excel, you can use Tableau."

Well, not exactly. While pros say Tableau Public is far easier to pick up than typical business intelligence packages, such as those from SAS Institute Inc. or SAP AG's Crystal Reports, it can still be painful for those who aren't pros at building pivot tables in Excel, as Computerworld discovered while creating a viz in a story published this week.

Tableau has plenty of training videos on its site and an active user forum. And as Computerworld's viz shows, the rewards for slogging through can be many: the ability to crunch data using quick-and-easy drag and drops, which can lead to fast, surprising discoveries, Chabot said.

"The state of BI dashboards today is that you start with your data in text form, and then you munge it and mash it until you've gotten your answer, and then you go and launch some chart wizard that asks you what template you want," he said. "We want you to manipulate vizs like a canvas, so you can think with the data and see patterns and trends revealed."

But didn't Google Maps and others already ignite the data movement when they popularized mashups three years ago?

Yes and no, said Chabot.

"Google Maps is done really well. But of the thousands of potential visualizations out there, it only does one," he said. "What about tables and bars and scatterplots? We're inspired by Google Maps, but it doesn't deliver any of those things."

All of the vizs created at Tableau Public may be found from search engines. For those creating a company report, that may be too open. Tableau Public may eventually let users keep their hosted vizs private for a fee.

Map-based mashups "have made the Web more pleasant to use, but haven't had a major business impact. The same will likely be true" of Tableau Public, Monash said.

That's fine by Tableau, which is hoping to upsell users onto the Desktop or Server version of Tableau.

The VC-backed startup is already booming. 2009 revenue was up 39% from 2008 (it won't disclose exact figures). Revenue for the prior three years grew 538%, ranking Tableau the 400th fastest growing company, according to Inc. magazine.

Eric Lai covers Windows and Linux, desktop applications, databases and business intelligence for Computerworld. Follow Eric on Twitter at @ericylai or subscribe to Eric's RSS feed. His e-mail address is elai@computerworld.com.

This story, "Tableau Software wants data junkies to do the 'viz'" was originally published by Computerworld.

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