Xcelsius Could Warm Any Geek's Blood

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Crystal Xcelsius (Business Objects, 866/923-5748, www.xcelsius.com) displays Excel spreadsheets on pretty graphs that change as you move little sliders and dials. This is fun in a geeky sort of way, but making Excel prettier is like putting lipstick on a pig. Any serious reporting system has to access corporate data directly. If Xcelsius can't help with that, is it really more than a toy?


That question turns out to have two answers, both in Xcelsius' favor. The more fundamental one is that Xcelsius can read corporate data outside of Excel. The other is that Xcelsius' display functions let non-technical users build serious systems that otherwise would require expensive professional development.


Before delving into these details, let's step back and look at how Xcelsius works. It starts with an Excel spreadsheet, which can include input values and formulas that calculate results based on those values. Users must design their spreadsheets with extra care to place data where Xcelsius needs it. The spreadsheet is imported into Xcelsius by pushing a button. Users then build their display screen by dragging components onto a blank workspace.


Xcelsius components control data input, display and selections. Data input mechanisms include a wide range of sliders, text boxes, dials and gauges. Display options include charts, maps and tables. Selectors let users work with lists, menus, radio buttons and other devices to control system functions.


The selectors are what really make Xcelsius a serious reporting application, because they let users navigate easily among different levels of information. For example, users can start with summary data and then drill down to see details by region or date range. Or they can toggle between display formats such as tables versus charts or between different topics such as sales versus cost components.


Components are connected to the spreadsheet by specifying data ranges in a properties window. Other properties give precise control over labels, type size, colors and other aspects of appearance. Additional properties depend on the nature of the component. These let users specify data ranges for drilldowns; starting values and value ranges for data input; and alert colors for variances from user-specified target values. Learning to do all this takes a bit of study, but it's not much harder than building graphs in Excel itself.


Users can test a model as they are building it and then publish it in HTML, Powerpoint, Adobe PDF or Macromedia Flash formats. These can be opened by any user with the appropriate software (Web browser, Powerpoint, Adobe reader or Flash reader) regardless of whether they own Xcelsius. Those users then can change input values using the sliders, etc., and see the results immediately on the charts. Let that sink in for a moment: You could change the values on a Powerpoint slide while you're in the middle of a presentation. If that's not cool, what is?


When an Xcelsius model is published, what actually happens is the system converts it to a Macromedia Flash SWF file. Flash then converts to other formats. The underlying Excel spreadsheet is encapsulated within the saved model, so the original Excel file is not needed to view the results. Of course, this also means that changes to the Excel file can be made only by rebuilding the Xcelsius model and republishing it.


This brings us back to the issue of connecting to corporate data. Though the basic versions of Xcelsius are limited to importing Excel, a higher-end version called Workgroup can connect to XML data sources that update a model directly. This can be done using Excel's own XML mapping functions, which import XML data into an Excel spreadsheet; by importing an XML file directly into the Xcelsius model; or by creating a script that queries an external database, creates the proper XML file and then imports it.


Such connections take more technical skill than you'll find in a typical Excel power user, who could otherwise exploit just about all the features that Xcelsius offers. But it's reasonable to expect a bit more technology department involvement to achieve this sort of integration. Once the connection is made, Xcelsius automatically refreshes the XML data any time the model is loaded. The model also can be set to refresh automatically at regular intervals - every few seconds if you like - or when the user pushes a button.


XML connections don't remove all the rigidities inherent in Xcelsius' reliance on a spreadsheet model. XML imports, like refreshed versions of an Excel spreadsheet, will work only if the new data fit precisely into the ranges already associated with specific components. These ranges must be defined with literal row and column cell addresses, not cell names.


Xcelsius does provide a feature to automatically exclude blank cells in a data range, so a model can adjust to new spreadsheets where the number of rows changes over time. Otherwise, users must rely on careful spreadsheet design to minimize the chance of a model breaking after a spreadsheet update.


Not the least impressive of Xcelsius' attributes is its price. The professional version of the system costs all of $495. A standard version, which lacks the PDF export, drilldown within charts and some other minor enhancements, is $200. The Workgroup version is pricier, $7,500 for one designer and 25 end users. The end-user licenses are necessary to use models with XML connections. The Workgroup version can still create and distribute regular models, without XML updates, readable by anyone.


Xcelsius runs on a Windows 2000 or XP workstation and requires Office 2000, XP or 2003. Completed models can run on nearly any system with the appropriate readers. The product originally was developed by Infommersion and has sold nearly 10,000 licenses since its release in 2003. Business Objects purchased Infommersion in November 2005 and released the latest version of Xcelsius later that month.


The Xcelsius Web site offers a free trial version of the software and more than a dozen live examples of Xcelsius applications. It also includes exceptionally thorough online documentation and tutorials.


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