February 6, 2008

I retract any recommendation of domain registrar NameCheap

In the past, I have recommended domain registrar NameCheap.com. But after last weekend’s server move, I retract any such recommendation.

I have 20-some odd domains registered, all with NameCheap. When moving servers, it was necessary to change the DNS listings for all of them. There are three ways to do this in the NameCheap interface. For some domains, an option comes up to type or paste DNS entries directly. For some, there’s a different sidebar, but that sidebar gives a “Make Like Another Domain” option. (I have no idea why NameCheap’s UI is inconsistent in that regard.) And there’s also a mass update capability, for a page of results (about 9) on the Manage Domains listing.

I started by changing a single domain (DBMS2.com). Then I noticed the mass change option, and tried it. However, I was told it might take the changes up to an hour go through. (9 freaking transactional updates? An hour?? What are you thinking, NameCheap?) I also found that when I tried the DNS management option, on the sidebars that showed it, I frequently got busy server error messages. (C’mon, NameCheap — just how busy can your core servers be on the weekend? Or do you have such terrible backup practices that they are fatally slowed when being backed up?) Read more

June 6, 2007

Don’t use Office 2007. But do steal its ideas.

You probably shouldn’t use Microsoft Office 2007. Even so, you probably should install and look at it, and then rip off its ideas. I’ll explain.

Microsoft Office Word 2007 is, so far as I can tell, seriously flawed. Specifically, it has been eating way too much of my work for me to happily keep using it. This has been going on long enough that I’m convinced the cause is not simple user error. The final straw yesterday was when changes I’d saved in a draft blog post (about Filemaker) weren’t there five hours later, with no intervening crashes, no messages about “Do you want to close w/ unsaved changes?”, and so on. Naturally, Microsoft (or rather the excellent consultant/expert they’ve provided me to talk with) has never heard of these problems before and is highly perplexed. Anyhow, I plan to keep using Word for highly formatted work – i.e., white papers and Monash Letters – but using it for general note-taking and blogging has turned out to be quite the mistake. (I guess I could go back to Word 2003, but now I’m intrigued by testing the cheaper alternative.)

But all glitches notwithstanding — Office 2007’s “ribbon” is one of the five greatest general UI advances in the past 10-15 years*. Just as the traditional Office menu/icon-row look-and-feel dominates business computing, the ribbon is likely to soon take its place. And deservedly so, at least in two broad classes of application: Analytic and composite. And those two, taken together, happen to comprise the vast majority of the innovation going on in enterprise applications today.

*Three of the other four, in my opinion, are:

  1. The screen-division aspect of dashboards and portals.
  2. Dynamic text-link navigation, also popularized via portals.
  3. Search boxes.

The last slot is left open for personal-taste additions to the list.

Read more

April 3, 2007

Business intelligence — technology and vendor strategy

The most recent Monash Letter – exclusively for Monash Advantage members — spells out some ideas on BI technology and vendor strategy. Specifically, it argues that there are at least four major ways to think about BI and other decision support technologies, namely as:

  1. A specialized application development technology. That’s what BI is, after all. Selling app dev runtimes isn’t a bad business. Selling analytic apps hasn’t gone so well, however.
  2. An infrastructure upgrade. That’s what the BI vendors have been pushing for some years, as they try to win enterprise vendor-consolidation decisions. To a first approximation, it’s been a good move for them, but it also has helped defocus them from other things they need to be doing.
  3. A transparent window on information. As Google, Bloomberg, and Lexis/Westlaw all demonstrate, users want access to “all” the possible information. BI vendors and management theorists alike have erred hugely in crippling enterprise dashboards via dogmas such as “balanced scorecards” and “seven plus-or-minus two.”
  4. A communication and collaboration tool. Communication/collaboration is as big a benefit of reporting as the numbers themselves are. I learned this in the 1980s, and it’s never changed. But BI vendors have whiffed repeatedly at enhancing this benefit.

The Letter then goes on to suggest two areas of technical need and opportunity in BI, which may be summarized as:

Good launching points for my other research on these subjects are this recent post on analytic technology marketing strategies and two high-concept white papers available here.

March 16, 2007

Have analytics vendors rediscovered ease-of-deployment?

Business intelligence (BI) used to be characterized by speed and cost-effectiveness — short sales cycles, low-cost departmental purchases and deployments, evasion of IT departments’ strangleholds of data, and so on and so forth. That focus has blurred, as BI vendors have increasingly focused on analytic applications or enterprise-wide standardization sales. But increasingly I’m seeing signs that the pendulum has swung at least partway back. For example:

It’s about time.

October 5, 2006

The problem with dashboards, and business intelligence segmented

It is becoming ever clearer that dashboards aren’t working out too well, any more than predecessor technologies like EIS (Executive Information Systems) did. The recurring problem with these technologies is that if they’re mind-numbingly simple, people don’t find them very useful; but if they’re not, people are overwhelmed and still don’t find them useful. This column by Sandra Gittlen does a good job of spelling the problem out.

I think there are lots of problems like that in BI, and what we need to do is step back and consider all the different kinds of BI that enterprises value and need. More precisely, let’s consider the major kinds of use of BI, because it seems that each calls for different kinds of technological support. Here’s one possible list:

Here’s what I mean by each category. Read more

October 4, 2006

KXEN and Verix try to disrupt the data mining market

Data mining is hugely important, but it does have issues with accessibility. The traditional model of data mining goes something like this:

  1. Data is assembled in a data warehouse from transactional information, with all the effort and expense that requires. Maybe more data is even deliberately gathered. Or maybe the data is in large part acquired, at moderate cost, from third-party providers like credit bureaus.
  2. The database experts fire up long-running, expensive data extraction processes to select data for analysis. Often, special data warehousing technology is used just for that purpose.
  3. The statistical experts pound away at the data in their dungeons, torturing it until it reveals its secrets.
  4. The results are made available to business operating units, both as reports and in the form of executable models.

Each in its own way, KXEN and Verix (the imminent new name of the company now called Business Events) want to change all that.
Read more

April 8, 2006

UI musings

In the past, I wrote vigorously and often about UI. I knocked heads long ago about the superiority of GUIs to character-based interfaces, and even long before that about the advantages of OLTP (which we called “real-time” then) over batch processing. In the latter 1990s, I put a lot of time and effort into search, better alerts-management, and context-sensitivity in general. And recently I’ve focused a lot of my research on analytics, often with a theme of “Yeah, yeah, the server-side stuff is cool — but let’s talk about how people actually interact with this stuff.”

Still, I feel something has been lacking, probably because there just are so many different UI subjects to talk about. So here are some quick-hit thoughts on UIs. The first ones are from my Computerworld column running next Monday, which is called (with apologies to Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King), Six Things I Think I Think About UIs.

1. “A good GUI interface” is the most important feature a product can have. In many cases, the GUI is the feature set, whether we’re talking about operational apps, BI, or IT administration tools. For example, when I looked into the security market a few years ago, it turned out that Checkpoint’s rise to dominate the firewall market in the late 1990s came about because it had a good GUI rules-administration interface, while otherwise equal or superior competitors didn’t.

2. Web UIs are now, finally, much superior to the client/server systems they replaced. That wasn’t true until recently. But now they’ve leapfrogged client/server a little bit in pure GUI functionality. (I somehow like this article on the technology, even though I’m not sure what I learned from it.) And they’re always been way ahead in application navigability.

3. BI look-and-feel is on the upswing. Business Objects is a good example of this. They brought their thin client products up to client/server GUI standards. They fiddled around in usability labs with screen real estate and so on to polish the dashboard UIs further. And then they went out and bought what is now Crystal Excelsius.

4. Portal technology is headed for a boom. I have a whole whitepaper in the works on that one.

5. Natural-language interfaces are advancing too slowly. Unfortunately, big vendors remain clueless about language-based UIs. Enterprise search is a fiasco. Most single-site web search is even worse; in almost every case, it’s inferior to just googling on search string + site name. As for natural language/voice command/control and navigation – we’re nowhere, Inquira and Sybase AnswersAnywhere notwithstanding. (I bet you can’t name a single user of either product off the top of your head. To tell the truth, I can’t either, except that I’m pretty sure Inquira powers the websites of a couple big-name cellular providers.)

6. Microsoft Office is a huge question mark. Office is facing a huge, if slow-moving, threat from open source. And the product has basically been stagnant for years, in that few users have cared much about any of the newer features.

Microsoft’s stated and obviously sincere strategy is to make Office an important window in the world of database applications. The Proclarity acquisition this week is surely part of that. So are the moves to make XML important in live documents, which dovetail nicely with the XML file formats of Office 2007.

EDIT: See also: You can start to imagine a world of Office as a business application platform,” Witts said.

7. In particular, Excel is a huge question mark. On the one hand, the BI industry is doing ever more to make Excel into a viable BI client. On the other hand, they’re trying to replace Excel as the data storage engine of choice — and in some cases even as the client — for budgeting/planning/etc. It does seem to me as if server-based planning is sweeping the enterprise world. So where does that leave Excel? Will it ultimately be anything more than a glorified calculator?

8. Home UIs are challenging work ones. Back when I consulted a lot to AOL in the late 1990s, I (correctly, it turns out) warned them that their client’s lack of functionality in areas such as email and browsing would get them into big trouble, because users’ expectations were being set higher at work. Now the reverse is at times true. Home bandwidth has caught up with work bandwidth, and webmail is in some ways better than Outlook. Meanwhile, a few websites out there are actually pretty usable, annoying clutter notwithstanding — and most of them are focused on consumer shopping, e.g. Amazon, Land’s End, et al.

9. Usability labs are crucial. Back in the 1990s, usability labs were new. Microsoft and Lotus and Borland had good ones, and Oracle hired Dan Rosenberg away from Borland to set up theirs. Other than that, there mainly were third-party consulting firms, or very primitive inhouse operations.

Well, I’m still not convinced that very many inhouse usability labs accomplish much. But I do know that whether it’s inhouse or third-party, you must use a lab if you’re serious about offering a competitive product.

10. Rules-based interfaces are too primitive. This isn’t really an interface issue so much as a functionality one — but as noted above, the two are inseparable. True declarative rules interfaces, which function with the same flexibility as 1980s-era expert system shells, are way too rare. Executing a set of rules in a set linear order is not the same thing at all.

January 20, 2006

The Power of Portals

I did a webinar last week on portal technology. On that webinar, I promised to post a link here to my whitepaper on third-generation analytic business processes. Done. (Scroll down to the bottom of the page.)

The webinar was pretty fast-moving, so I’d encourage you to replay it if you have a bit of time. But if you want to know just the tippy-topmost key points, the list is something like this:

December 9, 2005

SAP’s technical strategy

I just posted an extensive discussion of SAP’s technical strategy over on the DBMS2 blog. Key takeaways include:

1. SAP is serious about SOAs and, in most regards, openness.
2. SAP’s strategy does not gladden the hearts of top-tier DBMS vendors.

I also dinged them for being clueless about how to succeed in text search, but hey — nobody’s perfect, and there’s still time for them to fix the problem.

One interesting aspect of their strategy that did not fit into the above-mentioned server-oriented post is their take on UI. They said again and again and again that it is important to provide a high degree of UI freedom in accessing the same underlying application services. (Except that they usually referred to the services as — no surprise here — “business processes.”) This is a reversal from their prior belief that a transactional screen — or a portal page — was sufficient for everybody.

In general, the enterprise software industry is getting a lot more sophisticated about and competitive in it’s work on UI. I should post about that soon. (The point has come up repeatedly in my work on BI, with SAP, Business Objects, and others.)

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