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Forget mashups: Tableau Software wants data junkies to do the 'viz'

Start-up launches free data visualization service (See viz example, below)

By Eric Lai
February 11, 2010 04:01 PM ET

Computerworld - 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 start-up'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 in 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) -- and perhaps enable them 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 SAP AG's Crystal Reports or those from SAS Institute Inc., it can still be painful for people who aren't pros at building pivot tables in Excel, as Computerworld discovered while creating a viz for 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: It gives you 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 via search engines. That might be too much openness for users creating, say, a company report, but Tableau Public might eventually let users keep their hosted vizs private -- for a fee.

Map-based mashups "have made the Web more pleasant to use, but they 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 versions of Tableau.

The VC-backed start-up is already booming. Its 2009 revenue was 39% higher than its 2008 revenue (though the company won't disclose exact figures). Revenue for the prior three years grew 538%, making Tableau the 400th fastest-growing company, according to Inc. magazine.

An example of a 'viz' -- an interactive chart created with Tableau Software's Public data visualization app -- that shows details on the most popular albums.

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

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