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  • 7 minute Read

What Tinder Did For Dating, Tableau Wants To Do For Spreadsheets

One of Pixar’s founding employees and the ex-CTO of Lucasfilm have a new mission: Reinventing data analysis for the masses.

What Tinder Did For Dating, Tableau Wants To Do For Spreadsheets
[Photos: courtesy of Tableau]

You may not have heard of Tableau, the Seattle-based software firm that helps Fortune 500 companies make sense of their massive spreadsheets. You may not even care about spreadsheets. But Dave Story, who left his job as the CTO of Lucasfilm to become Tableau’s vice president for mobile growth, is hoping to change that.

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The fast-growing company, which began at Stanford in 2003, is taking its data visualizations to the casual user, aiming to reinvent the spreadsheet for the tablet age—and in the process, it hopes, beating Microsoft or Google to the punch.

Tableau has been growing fast. It’s achieved $412 million in annual revenue, with an impressive 78% growth rate. Its free platform, Tableau Public, boasts over 60,000 users—people in business, academia, government, and journalism—and publishes about 5,000 shareable data “workbooks” each week, the company says.

But having gained traction among international markets and small business users, it’s now asking a question with big implications for its future: Would people with little interest in data ever sit on their sofa, in their pajamas, playing with spreadsheets for fun?

Well, maybe. The company’s newest app, Elastic, takes various spreadsheet formats and rapidly converts them into tactile visualizations. By swiping fingers, pinching and pulling, and scrolling, users are able to find insights from data on their smartphone or tablet. And instead of targeting wealthy business intelligence customers, Tablaeu is going after the rest of us: When it’s released in beta this year, Elastic will be free and aimed at casual or small-business users trying to make sense of Fitbit data, Mint budgets, and other artifacts of the plugged-in life circa 2015.

Users load Excel spreadsheets into Elastic, which then converts them in seconds into what Story calls “Bar chart world.” In a recent demonstration of Elastic at a Tableau satellite office in Menlo Park, example XLS files of restaurant POS data and Fitbit fitness challenge data were converted into visualizations within seconds.

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The UI, to my surprise, owes much to Tinder: Users apply filters by right-swiping items, remove filters by left-swiping them, and can switch between different sorts of visualizations, like heat maps or pie charts, with finger movements. The program then allows users to home in on categories and compare, say, a Fitbit user’s exercise states week vs. week or how a different menu item sells at lunch versus dinner. The goal of Elastic, Story says, is to “help users understand the data in their inbox.”

Tableau’s Elastic combines ease-of-use and mobile software. Image via Tableau

How We Work On Tablets

The way we work on tablets and smartphones is largely different from desktop and laptop computers. Nearly all of us have experienced the hellishness of punching in a long email into an iPhone screen. And many of us have discovered that browsing PowerPoint slides on a laptop or on a projector is a “tactile” experience that takes unexpected, awkward turns once the slides end up on a relatively tiny phone screen.

Still, the file formats that once dominated the desktop world—Word and Excel—continue to dominate the mobile world. New mobile approaches to spreadsheets and word processing that only use proprietary formats risk being doomed to irrelevance; Microsoft’s formats still cast a mighty shadow (and more on that in a bit).

An example of an Elastic data sheet. Image via Tableau

Elastic is an attempt to reinvent the spreadsheet for mobile users. Instead of formulas and macros to make sense of numbers, users right-swipe, left-swipe, and pinch and zoom. And that’s the way we work on tablets and smartphones: Mostly without Bluetooth keyboards, and with a hell of a lot of improvising.

Tableau’s product is aimed at a very specific demographic: Users running small businesses, and managing projects such as budgeting, personal fitness, or planning a move. Elastic’s capabilities, honestly, seem ill-suited to the larger companies that comprise Tableau’s core audience—it doesn’t handle multiple spreadsheets and query capability is limited to whatever swipes a finger can make. But for ordinary users who are just looking for a way to make sense of data dumps from their bank or Nest thermostat, it’s perfect.

Elastic also skips over desktops and laptops and unapologetically targets people who work on their smartphones or tablets. As work begins to bleed into leisure time thanks to always-there devices and an expectation of a 24-hour working culture, mobile apps have become increasingly more important to the workplace. A 2014 study by Salesforce found that 65% of the mobile users they surveyed downloaded at least one business-specific app to their tablet or smartphone. In addition, tablets and smartphones are introducing computing into work situations where laptops are awkward and uncomfortable. That’s why your doctor has a smartphone lying about in their pocket and your restaurant server is punching your order into a tablet.

Taking On The Spreadsheet Titans

Tableau faces stiff competition amidst fast-growing demand: According to IDC, revenue for big data analysis and services is expected to grow from $14.26 billion in 2014 to $23.76 billion in 2016, with visual data discovery tools growing 2.5 times faster than the rest of the business intelligence market.

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When Satya Nadella took the helm at Microsoft late last year, he inaugurated a new era in Redmond. One of his first acts was doing something that would have been blasphemous just a few years ago: launching Microsoft Office for the iPad, and quietly making Office for the iPhone free to use. For a tech company that studiously ignored non-Microsoft mobile hardware for years and let rivals like Kingsoft Office and Google Docs proliferate, it was revolutionary.

Excel For iPad. Image via Microsoft

Nadella has ushered in what he calls a “mobile-first, cloud-first” mind-set at the organization, aiming to undo some of the damage caused by Microsoft’s clunky mobile approach over the years. It also means that Microsoft is pouring resources into creating productivity software that mobile users can use—which means investing in spreadsheets for mobile. That’s made Tableau and its approximately 1,900 employees work just a bit more quickly in the process.

Tableau and Microsoft aren’t the only players looking to reinvent mobile spreadsheets. IBM and Apple entered into a partnership last summer that was, more or less, a de facto admission that IBM was unsure of what they were doing in the mobile enterprise sphere. While the company refocuses on cloud computing products, it is more or less reliant on Apple to build mobile software products for their large corporate and governmental user base. The first batch of apps from the partnership largely center around business analytics, and it’s a safe bet that graphical manipulation of data for the business market is something they’re looking at.

And then there is Google, which is in the middle of a massive drive (pun intended) to center their Microsoft Office-like mobile offerings under the Google Drive umbrella. Thanks to Android’s Google origins and Drive’s preloaded presence on many Android phones, the company has a healthy share of the market in mobile spreadsheets. They are also helped by the fact that many, many businesses use Google Drive and Google’s office products for real-time collaboration. As of yet, Google hasn’t shown much interest in the mobile data visualization side, but, well, it has released an API for Docs that allows just that.

Tableau’s success in this increasingly competitive market has made the company the subject of acquisition rumors. Last month, Jim Cramer fueled them by suggesting that IBM buy Tableau. Tableau executives have downplayed talk of a purchase.

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Tableau’s Dave Story demonstrates Elastic at the seventh Tableau Conference in September

Spreadsheets For The Future

Story, whose office is decorated with Star Wars movie memorabilia and other relics of his old job at Lucasfilm, points to what he sees as a promising software trend: The devices we use and the services we pay for, he says, have led to a new era of online dashboards.

Using Jack Dorsey’s Square as an example, Story cited the credit-card processing service’s online dashboard as a way small businesses are able to make sense of their operations. But, he noted, many other services don’t have dashboards that are as good, or don’t even have dashboards at all. This, he insists, is part of Tableau’s reason for being—making data visual in a way that’s digestible, informative, and nice to look at.

When Story talks about looking at data, he offers a glimpse of Tableau’s vision: a future in which data sets will be tamed by the left-swipes and right-swipes of dating apps, by the pinching and zooming of multitouch, and by plenty of pretty visualizations. Indeed, Tableau contains a small troop of visual effects experts: Aside from Story, who was in charge of technology for all of Lucasfilm’s divisions, Tableau’s cofounder, Pat Hanrahan, was an early employee at Pixar Animation Studios who worked on physically based rendering, a technology that more accurately simulates materials and lights in computer graphics. And the company’s senior software engineer, Philip Hubbard, previously worked for Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic division, the group responsible for special effects on a range of blockbuster films.

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The spreadsheets of the future may not look like a Hollywood blockbuster exactly, but they won’t look like columns and rows either.

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