Tableau 8 unveiled. Can it keep the good times rolling?

Tableau previews version 8 of its category-leading software, and reveals its secret weapon: customers are having a blast.
Written by Andrew Brust, Contributor

Today, at the 2012 Tableau Customer Conference, version 8 of Tableau’s self-titled business analytics and visualization product (code-named “Kraken”) was unveiled.  It’s only a beta, but conference attendees are already chomping at the bit for it.  Having attended the keynote this morning, and spent yesterday speaking with Tableau customers and executives, I can tell you the enthusiasm among Tableau employees and customers is palpable.

Tableau 8 brings several things to the table, including a new rendering engine, new visualizations, connectors to new data sources, and new JavaScript API.  It also adds new capabilities to its server product (and thus to its browser interface) and offers a new iPad-optimized touch-friendly client as well.  But for Tableau, version 8 is about much more than new features.

A passionate context, and a passionate CEO
As he opened the keynote, Tableau’s CEO, Christian Chabot, said that "data processing is really a canvas for creative thinking." In pondering whether we have “been living in the golden age of business analytics,” Chabot responded that you could see it this way “only if you've become numb to the pain.” Then Chabot moved in for the inspiring big pitch.  He explained that Tableau will spend more ion R&D in the next year than it has in the previous eight.  Maybe that’s because Tableau, in Chabot’s words, is “trying to be a catalyst for a third and golden age of business analytics that...puts people first.”

The rest of the keynote consisted of very granular demonstrations of several of Tableau 8’s new features, including new visualizations like treemaps and forecasting extrapolations in line charts.  A small multiples feature allows numerous treemaps to be aggregated into a meta bar chart of sorts.  Each one of these features drew enthusiastic applause from the keynote audience.  And that’s interesting, because other products have already had these features, in some cases for years.  Even the ability to concatenate text values from multiple fields into a a label and, particularly, the ability to add justification and rich text formatting to those labels drew applause…big applause.  In a keynote.  What gives?

House of fun
I think it comes down to empowerment and validation.  When I met with key Tableau customers yesterday, including eBay and Hanesbrands, I learned something interesting. Organizations (at least the two aforementioned ones) that rely on Tableau typically have an internal champion for the product who used it in previous employment.  For these champions, Tableau enabled the taming of their data, made their jobs fun and, ostensibly, opened the door to even greater personal success in new positions where they had huge impact…by introducing Tableau.

The best analytics products – the best technologies, really – are absolutely the ones that are fun to use.  Fun is not a trivial matter in business; it’s the gating factor for success.  If you’re having fun, you have a vested interest in working harder, and far greater drive to achieve better results.  If you’re having fun, you’ll feel better about yourself, and be more confident in your ability – and such confidence tends to be self-fulfilling.  When work is fun, it aligns workers’ interests with their employers’, which was the purpose of employing them in the first place.

A “golden age of business analytics that...puts people first” where “data processing is really a canvas for creative thinking” is one where the analytics tools are fun.  Tableau seems to get that, better than perhaps any other company in the analytics space.

More features
Taken in that context, the other new features in Tableau 8 take on some real significance.  For example, the product now provides connectivity to Salesforce.com and Google Analytics.  These are very strategic data sources that, combined with Tableau’s visual analytics capabilities and the passion of its users, can really help a business when deeply understood.  And the performance gains that Tableau claims mean that iterative analysis of that data becomes more practical.

Tableau Server now supports the ability to author visualizations right in the Web browser.  Graphics acceleration and client-side data manipulation seem to make this new capability especially usable.  And extension of this capability to the Safari Web browser on the iPad means that the ad hoc analysis previously limited to Tableau Desktop can now be performed in more contexts, not just in the browser, but on devices too.

Update: the authoring capability extends not only to the Safari-based experience but to native apps for iOS and Android devices, as well.

JavaScript APIs allow Tableau to be embedded in Web sites and corporate portals.  And given the authoring capabilities supported by Tableau server, the product’s interactive capabilities become embeddable in sites, portals and corporate applications as well.  Again, competing BI products have offered APIs and embeddable user interfaces already, but their more waterfall-like approaches to building those assets even before they can be embedded have posed barriers to entry that Tableau clearly has its sites on taking down.

It’s the economy, stupid
As much as customers love Tableau, no one’s ever said it’s cheap.  The per-seat pricing for Tableau Desktop has, for a number of organizations, made it and its interactive capabilities prohibitive to deploy widely throughout an organization.  Tableau Server, with its server-based pricing, is far more feasibly made ubiquitous in an organization.  Desktop has been a posh boutique; Server has been more of the chain store.

With Tableau 8’s bestowal of interactive analytic capabilities to the Server product, in both computer and tablet Web browsers, Tableau could become a far more pervasively deployed, and actively used, Business Intelligence product.  Treemaps may not be the end-all, be-all, but making them fun to build, and pleasing to look at, helps.  And making the authoring/exploration experience of these publication-infographic-quality visualizations affordable to deploy, and even embed in corporate Web assets, could be a big breakthrough.

Tableau had 83 percent sales growth in 2011 and is up over 100% for the first half of 2012.  Its headcount will more than double this year – to above 700 – compared to where it was at the end of 2011.  The company needs to keep the growth going, and the fun/features cocktail of Tableau 8 makes the prognosis for that quite good.  Such success could create new challenges though.  Acceptance by IT departments may dull Tableau’s contrarian sheen, and disrupt its go-to-market strategy.

Ultimately, if Tableau can keep it fun, and its competitors continue to have trouble doing so themselves, then the Seattle-based analytics player will continue to have a good ride.


Disclosure: Tableau paid my air travel and lodging expenses in order to facilitate my attendance at the Tableau Customer Conference.

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