Next for QlikView and data discovery

QlikView has recently looked to me like a faded movie star who gazes fondly into the mirror. Though friends lavish compliments, and the phone still rings every day with offers, the buzz keeps slipping away to younger rivals. The proud old star won’t hear it: Never mind them, says the star, I’m still the biggest and the best.

Lucky for Qlik, there is rebirth in the software business. From what I heard at a recent two-day briefing, QlikView just might have rediscovered the magic.

“We can disrupt the industry again,” said CEO Lars Björk.

QlikView UnSummit 2013 leaves
For every season, a leaf.

They aim to “reinvent the BI industry and ourselves,” said CTO Anthony Deighton, and make the product more true to the original vision of “simplifying decisions for everyone, everywhere.”

Deep thought seems to have occurred, which suggests a major revision.

“We’re all fantastic analysts,” says Donald Farmer, vice president of product management. “Data is far too important to be left to data scientists.” Analysis is natural, they say, so the new theme is “natural analytics.”

He said the tool should get out of the way of our innate skills — sorting, pattern recognition, outlier detection, categorizing, and anticipation — and let us just go with the flow. He described the “almost magical” state of following a scent, totally absorbed. I’ve heard Tableau users talk about that, too.

QlikView Next will try to lower the ramp even further to meet even passive data-users while it still gives power-users room to run. It will aid collaboration, reveal not only what’s asked for but what wasn’t in a refreshed associative experience, visualize or not depending on need, and be nice to look at, too.

In doing all that, it will try to avoid some common pitfalls in software today: the do-it-FOR-me trap, feature bloat, pretty stuff that’s not useful, and other oppressive goop. I know all this matters; I’ve heard Tableau users praise their tool for avoiding such excess.

From what I could recognize in the demo, they’ve given the interface a total facelift. The new one has none of the old, musty feel but instead seems crisp and intuitive. Naturally, it wasn’t available to play with, and it will remain just a blur until I can spend time with it. But I can see that I may get to like it.

People like tools for many reasons, only one of which is that it works. One other reason is familiarity, which could explain a lot of the Qlik fan base. Another is that users can make a tool do what they want it to do; it responds. An old friend of mine loved his 1958 Volkswagen because he could adjust the valves. It reflected his effort. I imagine that software has the same benefits, such as when a QlikView user masters scripting. It’s a powerful skill, and I assume it inspires pride.

QlikView is “much loved,” says CEO Bjork. But I wonder what happens when Qlik turns “natural”? If natural means anything at all, it must indicate some difference from the current version, which I find unnatural. Does my approval of Next portend resistance from those who love the current version?

The key might be the kind of user Next is really intended for. Qlik talks about “information for everyone, everywhere.” Similarly, Tableau talks about “democratizing data” and, at the recent Washington, D.C. conference, it used the slogan “data for the people.” But no company can serve every user any better than a politician can serve every voter.

Instead, vendors and politicians start with one camp and try to reach the rest from there. Tableau’s heart seems to be with people who identify with artists or who aspire to be data commandos. Spotfire seems to like buttoned-down samurai. Qlik Next reaches with a handful of “personas,” Qlik’s imagined, quintessential users. Going by the current version, Qlik’s favorites seem to be those who aspire to be heroic infantry.

It’s too soon to tell how far Qlik’s new reach will go. At times during the briefing, I had doubts, such as when Next’s new reach seemed to go only into territory that Tableau and Spotfire seem to know so well. Among those users, the very idea of “natural analytics” will become a new object of ridicule. They’ll say tell us, Qlik, what’s more natural than visualization?

Could Qlik’s new reach have been too much for some insiders? Natural Analytics could have seemed unnaturally radical — which may explain Next’s apparent delay. About 13 months ago, the same group of industry analysts understood that Next was to have rolled out by now.

When asked, leadership gives what sound like excuses: “We’re not a startup,” they say, even though they weren’t a startup last year, either. They say they don’t want to “rush” Next out or “push anyone off” the current version, as if that version had a surge this year.

But let’s be generous. The delay will be forgotten once Next appears. For its fans, it will be a bright, exhilarating new presence. For others, it will be something to talk about and even to try. For the data discovery sector, it will be a challenge and a validation. I can’t wait to see how audiences react.

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