I've got a simple problem that lots of other people in marketing analysis have got. It's 2011 and we're still mailing spreadsheet reports to clients when they could be logging onto a web page and viewing the report there. No versioning problems, auto-updating, access on-demand, flexible and less intimidating than a spreadsheet for non-technical users. I want a piece of dashboarding and data visualisation software, but which one?
Lots of software vendors have worked out that there's a market and made a product. There are loads of solutions, from huge database engines powered by SAP that could handle a global airline's booking system, down to Excel Services from Microsoft that gives you a quick way to publish a spreadsheet to Sharepoint.
They all have one thing in common though. Nobody will tell you what any of them cost and you'll be very, very lucky to get a demo copy without talking to a sales rep.
I've been talking to a Spotfire rep this morning. When I said I was looking at making a small number of dashboards that external clients could access and I'd like a ball-park figure for how much the licences might cost, he giggled and said it wasn't that simple. How can it not be that simple? I want to know if I can afford your software - one dashboard builder and a server licence - yes or no?
Let's draw a quick analogy. You go into a furniture shop to look for a new sofa - you've heard they might have nice sofas but that's all you know.
When you get into the shop, there are loads of posters and pamphlets about how great the furniture is, but no prices and no products on the shop floor. A salesman says he can take you into another part of the shop where if you're really lucky, you can actually try sitting on a sofa, but only if you can tell him based on the leaflets exactly which one you'd like to see. He'll also need your name, address, phone number, email address and a short explanation of why you're interested in his sofas before he'll let you see any.
A little bit annoyed, you point out a picture and ask how much that one is, so you can know if it's in your price range before you try it.
"Well that depends," says the salesman. "How many people will sit on it?"
You don't know for sure and can't see why it's important, but hazard a guess at you and your family definitely, plus some friends when they come to visit.
Now he wants to know if more than one person will want to sit on it at the same time and whether your friends all live with each other, because if they visit you from different houses, then it will cost more.
You slap the salesman as he adds that you can't actually buy a sofa, you can only licence one. You don't get anything new after the sofa arrives, but that's just the way it works - next year you have to pay to keep sitting on it.
Oh and by the way, if some visiting relatves stop by unexpectedly this year and want to sit down, you'll owe the shop more money.
Analogy stretched far enough I think, but that's what this morning at work's been like. I don't mind bulk discounts and negotiating prices, but this is ridiculous.
I'm happy to recommend any of the multiple bits of software that will do a job for us, if I can find a developer who will give me a time-limited trial copy without jumping through sales hoops and a straight price for a software licence. No wonder so many people just hire a few few Adobe Flex developers and do it themselves - at least you know what you'll have to pay out in wages and anything they build is yours forever.
Since SAP bought Xcelsius and ruined it, there's a huge gap in the market for a cheap, simple way to publish Excel dashboards to the web. You used to be able to buy Xcelsius with a straight price per copy and do whatever you liked with it. Surely that's not too much to ask.