AutoQuery vs. Tableau: Fight!

AutoQuery and Tableau are competing software products within the rather paradoxically named field of “Business Intelligence” (or “BI”, for us lazy typists).  BI programs are designed for the purpose of making data analysis and presentation easier.  So, for instance, let’s say I’ve got a bunch of data sitting in a database and I want to put some of that data into a neat-looking graph, but I don’t want to actually look at the database—in fact, I’d rather not even think about the database because it has 3 million rows of data and that’s frankly terrifying.  So, I get some BI software and tell it what data I want to put in the chart based on which columns the data is in.  Not only do I not have to look at the database to do this, but if the data changes somehow (like, I dunno, our customers buy more of our products or something?) that change will be updated in the graph, because it’s pulling data from a live database.  Then, if I look at my beautiful chart and see something weird—like, say, one of my stores seems to be losing revenue every time employee Ian M. Athief is working the register—a BI program will let me filter out the data I don’t want to look at and “drill-down” to a tighter level of detail.

What Is AutoQuery?

AutoQuery is a BI product made by a company called Windward; it functions primarily as an add-on to Windward’s reporting application, AutoTag.  AutoTag, in turn, is an add-on for Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.  Windward says this means you can design effective reports easily and efficiently with very little learning curve—which is certainly true, but I still can’t help feeling frustrated that they somehow managed to weasel their way out of making their own design tools from scratch.  Just seems like cheating, somehow.

AutoQuery’s strange and alien interface.

What Is Tableau?

Tableau Desktop is, oddly enough, a desktop BI application made by a company called—if you can believe it—Tableau Software.  It’s a dynamic, visual application based on the sophisticated concept of “visual analysis”—which, as far as I can tell, just means “playing with graphs”, because that seems to be the main thing you do with the program.  The interface is heavily focused on drag-and-drop mechanics, allowing you to rearrange elements in the graph, change its appearance, or add new levels of detail just by dragging your data into the workspace.  And if playing with graphs just isn’t enough for you, you can also publish them to the web using Tableau Software’s companion product, Tableau Server (sold separately)—that way, anyone with a browser can play with your graphs too!

It’s like being a kid in a candy shop, except the candy tastes like graphs. 

Round One: Designing Reports

As I mentioned above, AutoQuery is an expansion of the features of AutoTag, so the tools available for designing reports in both programs are identical: they’re the tools already available in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.  In order to pull data from your database instead of typing in boring old ordinary words, you use the new AutoQuery tab in the ribbon to add in what are called “tags”.  Just like in HTML, AutoQuery tags are a way of marking up your document with information that tells the program reading it what to do.  Don’t worry, putting in tags is really straightforward—you don’t actually have to know HTML to do it.  In fact, you don’t even have to know what HTML is—just open up the tag editor, and the data selection wizards run you step-by-step through the process of making even the most complicated queries.  Or, just open up the “data bin” (an organized collection of your data that looks just like a normal file directory tree) and drag-and-drop your data straight into your document.  Tags can be inserted basically anywhere that you would put normal text, and there are several special tags like forEach (a tag that allows you to run though a selected range of data and print each element, handy for making tables), if/else (tags that allow you to display data only if a certain condition is true), and chart tags (uh…they’re charts).  If there are particular sets of tags that you use frequently, you can group them together and save them as “pods”, then put them into any new document just by dragging and dropping.  Or, you can use the “import” tag to insert entire documents into your report!  Just don’t import a document into itself…I haven’t actually tried it, but it sounds like the sort of thing that just might tear a hole in the fabric of reality.

The various tags in AutoQuery. Note the open Data Bin on the right.

In Tableau, report design is basically limited to “so, exactly how awesome are these graphs?”  Output formats include PDF, JPEG, and…that’s pretty much it, actually.  As I mentioned above, you can publish your interactive reports to the web, but this requires separate software.  You can resize your graphs and set the fonts they use, and you have limited control over their placement.  If you really want, you can add text and images to your graphs, but Tableau somehow seems sulky when you do this—like it’s saying “What, you want something besides graphs?  Are you saying my graphs aren’t good enough for you?  Wait, you’re telling me you want to actually print this thing?  But…that would mean you can’t play with it anymore!  What kind of monster are you?” and so on.  One neat feature about publishing to the web, however, is that your reports are automatically optimized for the iPad and other mobile devices, without any additional input from you.  So you can not only play with graphs instead of doing your work while you’re at your desk, you can do it during meetings too!

Not quite as addictive as Facebook, but much easier to explain to your boss.

Round One Winner: AutoQuery

 

Round Two: Filters and Drill-Down

AutoQuery adds filtering and drill-down tools to the visualization and graphing features already present in Office applications, along with the data manipulation and reporting capabilities of the AutoTag software.  AutoQuery lets you do some pretty sophisticated BI stuff, although the setup is not quite as intuitive as the report design process.  In order to filter your data interactively, for example (referred to as making an “ad-hoc query”), you need to set up the variable you want to filter, set up your tags in your report template to filter on that variable, and then go into “AutoQuery mode” where you can select different values for the variable dynamically.  It’s pretty straightforward, but not very fast.  Drill-downs can get much more sophisticated, but take more setup: using AutoQuery’s special drill-down tag, you can link certain data in your document to other reports that show detailed information specific to that data.  You do end up having to make a new report for each new drilldown, however.  Also, anytime you want to go back and change what the report looks like, you need to switch back to “template mode” to edit it.

Once you’ve got your report set up, filtering your data is pretty straightforward.

Tableau’s design is interesting in that its filtering and drill-down features aren’t really additional features so much as built into the program from the bottom up.  If Tableau is about playing with graphs, then filters and drill-down are really just particular ways of playing with your graphs, and adding them is as simple as right-clicking on one of your data fields or dragging another dimension of analysis into the workspace.  The drag-and-drop interface also lets you change which data you’re looking at, or the way you’re looking at it, on the fly.  You can also set up more complicated filters and drilldowns using parameters and custom calculations, but that takes some knowledge of the SQL programming language and is not as fast.

Simple and easy, just like Britney.

Round Two Winner: Tableau

 

Round Three: Document Generation

What else can I do with the reports I’ve generated, aside from making them into colorful workplace distractions?  Well, if you’re working with the Windward Engine (sold separately, some assembly required), you could write your own code that uses Windward’s document generation capabilities—which might be useful if, say, you wanted to take one of the templates you’ve made in Word and generate ten thousand reports in eight different formats based on that template.  I don’t work for an enormous bureaucracy myself, but if I did I can imagine how the ability to generate thousands of tedious forms in mere minutes would be a huge advantage over any competing bureaucracy.  Heck, at that level you could probably give the federal government a run for its money.

If you want to generate a thousand pretty graphs in Tableau, you…well, you can’t, actually.  So that kind of sucks.

In the top left, we have a visualization of Windward’s document generation solution. On the bottom right is Tableau Software’s competing solution.*

Round Three Winner: AutoQuery

 

Bonus Round: Sudden Death

So, between AutoQuery and Tableau, who comes out on top?  If you’re looking for a program that speeds up the data analysis process, Tableau might be worth looking at.  On the other hand, AutoQuery offers just as much power in analysis as Tableau with a little more setup, and blows them out of the water for report design with all the flexibility and familiarity of Microsoft Office—and for document generation, there’s no way at all to do it in Tableau.  Really, which program comes out on top depends on what your needs are, but if your needs are diverse AutoQuery is more likely to support them.  AutoQuery is slower than Tableau for BI, but it can do all the same things that Tableau can, and the opposite is certainly not true; Windward’s products simply cover more of your bases than Tableau’s.

However, both products do have one very serious flaw: after an extensive search of both Tableau Desktop and AutoQuery, I was forced to conclude that neither one contains any pictures, videos, drawings, stories, flash games, or animated GIFs featuring hilarious kittens.  If you must get one or the other, I’d recommend AutoQuery, but otherwise I would hold off until one of the two companies issues a software update to fix the problem.

Final Score:

AutoQuery – NO KITTENS

Tableau – NO KITTENS

 

Wait—I Think I’m Supposed to Put a Table in Here Somewhere

Arbitrary List of Features Does Windward AutoQuery Have It? Does Tableau Desktop Have It?
Can My Boss Use It? YES; AutoQuery’s design interface is the same old Microsoft Office you’re already familiar with.  5/5 YES; Tableau’s drag-and-drop interface is very approachable and intuitive.  5/5
Can I Learn It Without Having to Call Tech Support? YES; Windward provides a large collection of free online training videos, samples, and written documentation.  5/5 YES; Tableau Software also provides a large collection of tutorials, samples, and documentation on their website.  Also free, although users must “register” to see them.  4/5
Can I Borrow Their Technology and Use It for My Own Dastardly Purposes? YES; Windward’s reporting engine is very fast and supports a wide range of output formats, and can be integrated with .NET or Java in as little as five lines of code.  Or, use Windward’s Javelin server software to integrate the engine into any programming language.  5/5 NO; Tableau Software does not provide a reporting engine, and the VizQL visual query language they use for their product is strictly closed-source.  0/5
Can I Make Reports to the Exacting Specifications of My Pointy-Haired Manager? YES; Windward exploits the power of Microsoft’s Office programs to let you design your reports however you like.  5/5 NO; Tableau’s presentation is slick, and the ability to publish interactive reports to the web is great, but layout and formatting options are limited.  3/5
Can I Mutilate Rearrange My Data to Present It in New Ways? YES; Windward’s wizards and tags allow you to filter, sort, and organize your data however you want, so that you can present it however you want.  5/5 YES; Tableau’s interface makes arranging your data in new ways simple and straightforward, although you must know some SQL to make more complicated joins and calculations.  4/5
Can I Give Myself A Raise In My Expenditures Report? YES; In AutoQuery you can use “if” tags or conditional formatting to exclude or replace any output depending on certain conditions—though if your boss catches you raising your own salary, that won’t be the only thing that gets replaced.  5/5 YES; Tableau supports data manipulation with the ability to make and re-use custom calculations—although you have to know a little SQL to use them.  Tableau has no similar option for conditional formatting of its output.  3/5
Can I Import My Hardworking Neighbor’s Report Into My Own and Claim All the Credit? YES; Windward makes it easy to combine multiple reports and report elements using the hyperlink, drilldown, and import tags, along with the “pods” feature.  5/5 YES; You can import and arrange multiple charts into an interactive “dashboard”, which can contain multiple elements.  However, linking dashboard elements to other dashboards is not supported.  4/5
Can I Use My Data to Make Pretty Pictures? YES; AutoQuery supports all the same charting and data visualization capabilities of Microsoft Office.  5/5 YES; Tableau is designed specifically for making data visualizations such as charts, graphs, and maps.  5/5
Can I Play With the Pretty Pictures to Make More Pretty Pictures? YES; AutoQuery supports powerful and flexible BI capabilities that allow you to filter and link together multiple visualizations.  The setup can take a while, though.  4/5 YES; Tableau is designed for just this purpose—drag-and-drop visualization makes it easy to filter and sort your data interactively.  5/5
Can I Show My Cubicle-Mate All of the Underlying Data in a Cross-Tab So I Can Steal His Pens When He Passes Out from Shock? NO; Cross-tabs seem to be one of the few features that Windward doesn’t support.  The best you can do is simulate one in Excel using several forEach tags and an extensive table.  1/5 YES; Tableau allows you to turn your charts into cross-tabs and look at the underlying data at any time.  5/5
Cn I Use Lzy Shrtcts for Comn Tsks? YES; AutoQuery has plentiful shortcuts and wizards for frequent and/or complicated tasks, although in some cases you may have to repeat an action several times to build a full report.  4/5 YES; Tableau’s “calculated field” feature and its ability to copy worksheets allow you to re-use common tasks.  However, some types of common actions, such as table joins and custom calculations, require programming experience.  3/5
Can I Use Custom Calculations So it Looks Like We’re Making a Profit? YES; Windward’s software supports custom calculations through their own interface as well as through Microsoft’s.  They disclaim liability for fraud, though—that’s your own fault.  5/5 YES; Tableau allows you to make and re-use custom calculations for your data.  5/5
Can I See What I’m Doing Without Having to Consult Some Super Secret Spy Report Decoding Kit? YES; Since you’re designing reports in Office, what you see on the screen is pretty much what you get—although when the final report gets generated, the inserted data can occasionally mess with the formatting.  4/5 YES; There is no distinction in Tableau between report design and report generation; what you see is literally what you get.  5/5
Do the Design Tools Have Enough Features to Distract Me Long Enough to Keep Me from Doing Any Actual Work? YES; Not only does Windward have plenty of helpful tooltips, widgets, and features complementing their own product’s abilities, but because they’re integrated into the fully-featured and powerful design tools of Microsoft Office, they are automatically able to take advantage of all that those products have to offer as well (cheaters).  5/5 SORT OF; Tableau does have a lot of useful features—however, many of them are buried under menus and obscure options.  Tableau’s core—interactive data visualization—is very strong, but there is little support for anything else.  3/5
TOTAL SCORE: 63/70 54/70

 

You can find more information on AutoQuery and Tableau on their companies’ websites:

Windward – http://www.windward.net/

Tableau Software – http://www.tableausoftware.com/

 

*All logos copyright their respective owners.  Photocopier image licensed under the GPL Free Documentation License and the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.  Image taken from Wikipedia.  Windward Engine image copyright 2005-2011 by Windward Studios, Inc.  Image taken from the Windward website.

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