Now that I caught your attention with the title — it's not what you think. It's not about freeing BI from the constraints and limitations of corporate politics, organizational silos, and lack of proper data governance — although that's a very worthy topic to write about.
This morning, Google will unveil a beta version of its spreadsheet application with some new advanced features, such as Pivot Table. The Pivot Table is a product developed by Panorama, a small, but upcoming BI vendor (they are currently being evaluated in detail by Forrester BI Wave '08), who were, interestingly enough, the original inventors of Microsoft Analysis Services OLAP (Online Analytic Processing) engine. So now, part of Panorama code will be inside two of the biggest software companies in the world!
With this new feature, every Google spreadsheet user will have access to powerful OLAP, as a free BI SaaS add-on to Google Docs. In my opinion — a very wise move by Google to continue to push Google Docs into enterprises.
When I wrote a research document on the intersection of BI and spreadsheets, I had to defend my thesis that Excel is here to stay in front of several Forrester analysts and research directors. Some of them questioned the long-term viability of Excel vs. Google apps free SaaS model. I still stand by what I said and wrote — business users are much more concerned with rich functionality, familiar interface, and ubiquitousness of Excel, even given the low- to no-cost Google option and its out of the box collaboration capabilities. With close to 400 million Excel copies out there, Excel and, specifically, Excel for BI is here to stay.
In order to compete with Excel, among many other features, Google spreadsheets lacked specific business functionality needed to analyze vast amounts of data stored in these spreadsheets. With Panorama free add-on Google spreadsheets, users can now take advantage of this lightweight — but still very respectable and powerful — OLAP engine. Yes, out of the box native pivot tables in spreadsheets can do basic analysis on rows and columns of data, but Panorama takes it much farther with more powerful OLAP functions like (I don't actually know yet what subset of full Panorama OLAP functionality is available as Google add-on):
- Drill up/down
- Drill across/Drill through/Drill anywhere
- Combine/merge/split dimensions
- Exception handling and conditional formatting
Are there any immediate takeaways for our audience, I&KM pros? Probably not, since this offering is far from a large enterprise grade reporting and analytics solution, lacking such necessary features as end-to-end metadata management, data cleansing, connectivity to all corporate data sources, and many others. However, I do hear of an increasing demand among power users for a BI "sandbox" environment, where one could perform all sorts of data analysis without being constrained by corporate security, priorities, system availability, and many other issues that typically keep IT lagging in delivering on the barrage of never-ending business requests for BI enhancements. As a result, I always advise all BI vendors to include BI "sandbox" functionality in their product offerings. Outside of the firewall, sandbox, SaaS BI application could just be the answer.
What's next? Will Google buy www.elastra.com and offer Data Warehouse and BI SaaS services on this infinitely scalable platform? Not sure, given security and WAN bandwidth concerns. But watch for a blog from my colleague, Jim Kobielus, with more on these interesting possibilities.
Regardless of what Google does next or what other BI vendors will do in response, BI users now have yet another free BI option (yes, limited, but you can't beat the price) in addition to Open Source BI tools available from Ecliplse BIRT and other Open Source BI projects sponsored by Actuate, Jaspersoft, and Pentaho.