Here’s one for all you knowledge workers out there

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The BI vendors have been working on their user interfaces. Cognos, Business Objects, MicroStrategy et al have been trying to make their BI software easier to use in order to prompt mass adoption outside the hard-core analyst fraternity. Unfortunately the interface of choice for the masses is Microsoft Excel. So after years of trying to convince us that their proprietary interfaces are best, nearly all suppliers now offer Excel as their primary user interface. But there is always an exception to every rule, and that exception is Tableau.

Tableau is not your usual BI company. CTO and co-founder Pat Hanrahan has two Academy Awards on his mantle piece from being the chief architect of Pixar’s RenderMan software, used in films like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. He made the Golden Snitch fly in the Quidditch match (for the Harry Potter fans). Dr Charles Geschke, founder and Chairman of Adobe Systems, is on the company’s Board of Directors. He worked at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center prior to setting up Adobe in 1982. Tableau likes brainy people who understand visualisation.

Dr. Hanrahan is also the CANON Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Stanford University and it was there, just down the hall from the Google whiz kids Larry Paige and Sergey Brin, that the idea behind Tableau was hatched. “What if we created a graphical interface that does for business software users what Pixar did for films?” Dr. Hanrahan asked. The answer was Tableau.

Rather than offer an Excel-like charting wizard with a list of template graph options, Dr Hanrahan created a proprietary query language called VizQLTM that marries a query to a visual response. In effect users can conduct an interactive and visual “Q&A” turning live data into pictures, in a Pixar kind of way, until they get the answers they are looking for. Its all drag-and-drop and intuitive, so very little training is required.

This is all highly attractive to the creative knowledge workers at companies such as Accenture, McKinseys, and Boston Consulting Group who can really “work” complex data visually using Tableau software. Other knowledge workers such as business and financial analysts, researchers, scientists and engineers are typical end users. At an entry level out-of-the-box price of $995, users can get started at relatively low cost, without IT Department assistance.

Wal-Mart, General Motors, Boeing, Microsoft, eBay, and Google are among Tableau’s 5,000+ customers. The US National Institute of Health analyses cancer research from clinical studies, Charles Schwab tracks its own IT performance, Dow Chemical analyses patents and technology licenses. Hyperion is a business partner and sells the product as “Hyperion Visual Explorer”.

The latest version, Tableau v3.0, was launched in April 2007 and is certified for Microsoft Vista and Office 2007. It boasts dynamic dashboarding and data labels, advanced filters and a very useful feature—annotations that automatically reposition themselves as you explore and analyze. Tableau v3.0 also further embraces the open source world with connections to PostgreSQL and Firebird which are added to connections to Excel, Access, SQL Server, SQL Server Analysis Services, MySQL, Oracle, IBM DB2 and Hyperion Essbase.

Tableau has a vision to be a $1Bn software company when it grows up. If it can keep going on the long and arduous journey this will require, it may just make it. Mr Frodo and Sam would most certainly approve.