In March of 2006 I glimpsed the new charting capabilities of Excel 2007 for the first time and wrote about them in an article titled “Excel’s New Charting Engine: Preview of an Opportunity Missed.” After waiting for years to see how the world’s most popular data analysis software would improve its sadly lacking charting capabilities, I mourned the opportunity for improvement that was almost entirely missed. Essentially, an entirely new charting engine in Excel 2007 replaced the old one, but what it brought with it was a fresh array of flashy visual effects that encouraged us to hide our data behind a thick layer of cheap makeup. Within two days of my article’s publication, I received an email from Scott Ruble, the person in charge of charting functionality in Microsoft Office products. Scott invited me to help the team improve the charting capabilities of the product’s next major release—Excel 2010—which will become available sometime during the first half of next year. We’ve had several conversations since, including a teleconference with the team. Early glimpses into the charting capabilities of Excel 2010 are now beginning to surface, and it appears that the opportunity to improve the product’s data visualization capabilities has once again been missed. Although I haven’t seen an advance version of the product myself, those who have tell me that it includes only one change to charting: the addition of sparklines. What a shame.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m thrilled that a version of Tufte’s sparklines will be added. Assuming that the implementation is well designed, this will eliminate the need for an add-in product if you want to display a set of time-series values as a simple sparkline, but this is a single grain of sand compared to an entire seashore of need. No single product in the world is used more than Excel for analytics, not because it’s a good tool for data exploration, analysis, and presentation—it isn’t—but because almost everyone in the world who works with quantitative data has it. Just imagine how much the world would benefit if Excel were more powerful and better designed. I was frustrated and upset when Excel 2007 missed the mark, but now with Excel 2010 trying to assuage our misery with nothing but sparklines, I’m inclined to give up on the product entirely as a tools for data analysis. Fortunately, where Excel has failed, alternative products have emerged that deliver effective and visionary analytical abundance.
Will Microsoft play a role in the future of data analytics? Although the company boasts a business intelligence (BI) solution and even declared its commitment with the first annual Microsoft Business Intelligence Conference in May of 2007 (the 2009 conference was cancelled), only its database does anything particularly useful for BI so far. The other pieces that have been awkwardly rubber-banded together into a so-called BI solution suggest the lack of a strategy or a confused one at best, and previews of coming additions, such as Project Gemini, suggest nothing but already dated functionality for the future. I don’t have a bias against Microsoft because it’s huge and powerful; I have a progressively growing disappointment with it because of unfulfilled potential. If Microsoft seriously applied itself to the task, it could probably do some wonderful for the world of analytics. At this point, Microsoft will have to do something big, totally unexpected, and uncharacteristically well designed if it hopes to play a role in the future of analytics. I would welcome this with arms wide open, but I’m not holding my breath.