There is a thoughtful article today by Stephen Few in the BI Network journal. In this he discusses the ways in which data can be presented to people, and gives a nice example of how a flashy graphic can be harder to interpret than a simple bar chart. There are some interesting follow-ups to this line of reasoning. Firstly, the vast majority of users of BI software have quite simple data display needs: they probably want to see a trend in data e.g. “are sales going up or down?” or answer a simple question like “what is the most profitable distributor?”. Since the vast majority of BI tool users have no background in data analysis or statistics, it is at best pointless and possible self-defeating to provide them with much in the way of statistical tools or elaborate graphical display capabilities. If they don’t understand statistical significance for example, then they may reach invalid conclusions by playing around with statistical tools.
This may explain why vendors who specialize in advanced data visualization never seem to really make it to any size. There are some very interesting technologies in this area e.g. Fractal Edge,(a technology that seems to me genuinely innovative) AVS, OpenDX and the tackily named The Brain. More established vendors would include SAS, who were one of the first vendors to really go in for sophisticated graphics and statistical tools, yet built up their considerable success mainly in other areas (e.g. they were about the only software that could make sense of an IBM mainframe dump, so became a standard in data centers; they have since diversified greatly). So, two decades after the graphical user interface became ubiquitous, why are there no billion dollar data visualization companies?
I think it is simply that there are not enough people out there whose jobs demand advanced data analysis tools. I have argued elsewhere that the vast majority of business users have no need whatever of ad hoc analytical BI tools. One can debate the exact proportion of business users who need something more than a report. I reckon perhaps 5% based on my experience on data warehouse projects, while I have seen an estimate of 15% from Forrester, so let’s say 10% isn’t far off. Then within this population, who want to at least see some analysis of data, what proportion are serious data analysts and what proportion would find a bar chart more than adequate? I don’t have any hard data here, but let’s go for 10% again as a guess. In such a case then only 1% of potential BI users actually need a sophisticated data visualization or statistical toolset. Indeed this figure may not be so far off, since in order to make serious use of such tools, some background in statistics is probably important, and relatively few people have this.
This would mean that, in a large organization of 10,000 people, there is actually only a market of 100 people for advanced data visualization or statistical tools (data mining tools being one example). Assuming that it is rare to be able to charge more than a few hundred dollars for a PC tool, then even at a thousand dollars a piece our mythical company would only be worth a maximum of USD 100k to a vendor, and that assumes that the vendor could track down every one of these advanced data users, and that every one of them buys the software, an unlikely situation.
If this reasoning stacks up, then while there will continue to be fascinating niche technologies serving aspects of data visualization, we are unlikely ever to see a true mass market for such tools. A picture may tell a thousand words, but there may not be many people in businesses needing to actually produce such pictures.
A good strategy for data visualization vendors would be to avoid trying to be mass market tools and find industry niches where clever graphics really do add a lot of value. For example a tool which improved a stock market trader’s view of the market would presumably be worth a lot more than a thousand dollars. The same would be true of a geophysicist working for an oil company. A good example of a targeted strategy of this kind can be seen in Spotfire, who have carved out a strong niche primarily on the life sciences industry, and seem to be thriving on it.