Monday, March 12, 2012

Is it OK to get excited about Explorer yet?

I can't remember the first time I saw Explorer, but it seems like a really long time ago. It's been a part of every major SAP or BusinessObjects keynote that I can remember, shown as the delivery method for high-value information to people who don't otherwise know how to get at information, and it was really BusinessObjects first foray into Mobile BI (if, that is, you're able to ignore the Blackberry version of Mobi. Based on what I've heard, most of you were able to ignore  the Blackberry version of Mobi).

The thing is, besides coming out with an iOS interface, Explorer hadn't really changed much, at least in terms of appearance, since it first came out of the labs and was called "Polestar" (a relatively exhaustive history is available here). Why is this? The commonly held assumption is that no one bought the damned thing*, making more investment into it seem dubious. Based on some of the things happening around Explorer these days, the investment faucet has opened back up.

Which is good, as I'm taking a look at it for my employer and have run into several limitations, most of which have been resolved in the most current release (which of course I'm not on) or in the upcoming FP3 (which I am also obviously not on). Per SAP (ASUG login required), the following have all (or will be directly) added to the tool.
  • Second Dimension - Now you can chart by product by region. That's a big deal. 
  • Auditing - If I can't prove people are using it, it's tough to justify spending more on it. Based on some feedback I've received this last week, I'm not entirely sure that everyone who has the latest version is aware of this feature.
  • OpenDoc - Or more accurately "OpenDoc-like functionality." I desperately want to be able to link from a dashboard spot to an Information Space with several facets already selected. I clearly do not want to bookmark and record the URL for every one of the possible combinations of selected facets. 
  • Calculated Measures - These had historically only existed at the session level and are now (or will be soon) available as part of the Information Space properties. This really broadens the value of the Explorer Tool since it allows for (simple) measures to be calculated during runtime at higher levels (such as revenue/store) where storing them at the lowest grain possible (individual transactions) would lead to inaccurate aggregations.
  • Offline Capability - In the current App Store version you can bookmark a particular view and keep it around (and even manually resync it when you are connected), but everyone knows that isn't really the ideal end game here because you lose the ability to analyze it. Based on some conversations I've had, I'm not sure that SAP intends to extend the functionality far beyond that.
  • Time Trending - This allows data stored as "Wednesday" and "Mittwoch" (Wednesday in German) to be grouped automatically in facets and sorted properly in charts. 
  • Geospatial/regionalizing/maps - For years I've rolled my eyes when salesmen would talk about this sort of functionality in BI tools, but after seeing some of the things Centigon has done I'm fairly certain geolocation has a use case (albeit a limited one) in the field. I think this is more a play for the future than the present, but it will be interesting to see it shake out.

Obviously the big thing about Explorer in FP3 is the release of Exploration Views (which is NOT supposed to be an additional license beyond Explorer). This essentially turns Explorer into a data source for sexier and more customizable visualizations, which is a good thing. An even better thing is that this application has been shown around for a long time, so it should be pretty close to fully baked when FP3 first comes out.

Why should we care about Explorer so much? Since some customers showed interest in it (and voted with their wallets) the tool has and is continuing to become a lot more enterprise class. I think in the not too distant future we'll see companies drive their "self-service" analytics needs through a tool like Explorer and their hot and heavy ad hoc users through Webi (although these folks could probably just as easily use Crystal and skip Webi altogether).

The important thing is that Explorer is finally getting beefed up, so if you haven't invested in it before, it's probably about time.

* Number of downloads is often a metric used to prove adoption of a certain application (or more often an app) but I find it flawed. Everyone and their brother/sister have downloaded the SAP Explorer app from the app store, but until they connect it to their own environment's repository, I couldn't care less. Hopefully most of SAP's BI customers aren't basing their decisions on 20 year old World Cup results or Formula One metrics.

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