An earlier version of this post, with a different conclusion and minor differences, appeared in late November.

Qlik CTO Anthony Deighton was drying his hands on the thick, almost cloth-like paper towels in the men’s room at the Miami Edition hotel at the recent Qlik analyst event. He heard another man in the room comparing the towels to some at a past hotel. There, the man said, the towels were thin, the man said. Deighton replied, “They were useless, like Tableau.”

Back in 2012, the T word was barely uttered at the gathering that year of industry analysts. Not long before, the bright and playful Tableau had just stung the plodding, script-laden Qlik in what felt like a surprise attack. This year, Qlik seemed to have regained its poise — and two dozen or so industry analysts gathered at the hotel with good paper towels to hear about the progress.

First, the analysts wanted to know about the buyout. As of late 2016, Qlik’s no longer publicly traded. CEO Lars Björk introduced Chip Virnig, a principle at the private equity firm that bought Qlik, Thoma Bravo, and now a Qlik board member. The buyout is “a very big bet” for the firm, he said, but it felt not only “safe” but also well positioned to thrive. Deighton, speaking afterward, praised the new “cloak of darkness that frees management from an old distraction, public scrutiny.

Decline of “white-coated smart guys”

Qlik sees the end of BI “as a destination,” in which “white-coated smart guys” serve hapless data consumers. This is the beginning of BI “as a platform,” Deighton said, that feeds on a wide variety of data sources, whether on the cloud or under a desk, which then supplies bits of analysis to vertical applications.

You might imagine BI disappearing into everyday business. Applications will serve specific needs and embedded apps will weave into “real work” throughout the day. Deighton cited the Uber app, which is at first glance hardly a data-analysis tool. It’s only under the hood that that shows itself.

During a break afterward, a few analysts grumbled about Qlik’s road toward the cloud: “They’re late,” said one person. Later, others seemed to agree.

Does lateness matter? As if in defense to the grumbles outside, Deighton declared, “I don’t care what competitors do. What really matters is ‘know thyself.’” Imitations usually compare poorly with the original. You’re better off knowing what you do best and doing it for all you’re worth. I agree.

Sticking to the be-who-you-are strategy, they stick with three known Qlik differentiators. One is the platform and a second is its traditional fondness for governance, which has given Qlik an edge on Tableau.

The third differentiator is the troublesome one: the “associative experience.” The concept is easy: It answers not only the direct question, “What’s in this set?” but also the implied question, “What’s not in this set?” Hey boss, it might say, I know what you asked to see, but did you notice this over here?

Actual examples of the feature at work seem scarce. Many of the supposed proofs don’t prove anything: money saved, decisions made, and other fine outcomes that fail to demonstrate the feature at work. I can recall only one example that truly illustrates the value: IT consultant Don Marks, one of four Qlik customers flown in for this year’s UnSummit, told me in a one-to-one meeting about a fraud-prevention project at a bank. They had managed to suppress fraud in areas where it had occurred. But then Qlik Sense let them see it pop up in areas they hadn’t thought to look.

Tableau users I’ve heard from seem to think little of the feature. They compare it poorly to Tableau filtering, though Qlik argues that by definition filtering would have hidden the rebounding fraud.

Resonating

Deighton asked the assembled seers, “Does this resonate?” Well, sure. If you squint, you might even see his trends coming true already.

But what does it matter? What’s it matter that Qlik is, as some say, “late” to the cloud? What’s it matter that it can do some things better than Tableau or any other tool? Each constituency insists that their chosen tool is more useful. Each side trivializes the other’s advantages. Each one’s pitch to industry analyst assumes roughly the same trends. Only the emphasis varies.

My impression: Generally, Qlik seems to be building out to a bigger, bolder ecosystem. Its three differentiators — platform, governance, and the “associative” feature — contrast boldly with Tableau’s differentiators, which seem best expressed as flow, art, and expression.

Overall, Tableau looks like fun, and Qlik looks like work. Both are useful, but each tells a different story.

Which one would go on my short list depends on the type of organization. Qlik if users wanted a routine and relatively limited set of analyses to be used in mature organization. Tableau if analyses had to be more free-ranging and used by more intellectual or creative people than the average business user, in a dynamic and creative organization.

Useful stories

Any paper towel is useful depending on location and intent. To compare brands, some might turn to the Handle-O-Meter, an actual machine developed by Johnson & Johnson to measure surface friction and flexibility — the same way that industry analysts like to add up features.

But the Handle-O-Meter is useless for judging a towel’s important aspect: its message to the user. Does its plush, silky finish tell you that you’re a treasured guest worthy of comfort? Or does is say with its cheap, rapidly disintegrating fiber that you’d better hurry up and get out?

What do Qlik and Tableau tell the user? Tableau says, “Ask! Explore! Play!,” which appeals to some cultures. Qlik says, “Be serious!” which appeals more to other cultures.

Deighton’s quip is fair enough. But whichever is more useful depends on who’s asking and why.