Xcelsius: How to Ruin a Great Application

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Are you sitting comfortably? Then our story, "How to Ruin a Great Product," can begin. . . . 

Once upon a time (which is how all the best stories start) (well, except for those that start "It was a dark and stormy night . . . " but this isn't one of those) there was a really, really, really cool application called Xcelsius.

This software was from a company called Infommersion. This program allowed you to import an Excel spreadsheet and create a flash presentation with graphical controls and components to manipulate the underlying spreadsheet data. Using this software you could create the most amazing corporate information dashboards and analytical tools. It was pure magic.

So it was that I, your humble narrator, recognizing fabulosity, did discuss the product in my Gearhead column not once (my original review was in 2004!) but many times. It was that good a product.

But then the dark clouds of acquisition did swirl across the commercial landscape and in late 2005 Business Objects purchased Infommersion and Business Objects was, in turn, acquired by SAP AG in January this year. And in all of this swirl and flurry of filthy lucre the Xcelsius product apparently got rather sidelined.

The previous release of Xcelsius, Version 4.5, was turned loose in June 2006, and the latest, Xcelsius 2008, in mid March this year. The latest release is, so I am told, a complete rewrite and went from being a mere glimmer in the corporate eye to a full release in just 18 months. Way too fast for such a complex product. And it shows.

I hadn't had a chance to look at Xcelsius 2008 until a week or so ago, and within minutes of installing and firing it up I found problems. An obvious problem was Xcelsius' habit of randomly changing which spreadsheet cells a control was linked to.

But that was as nothing compared to the dumbest bug of all -- and I am apparently the first person to find this gotcha: flash presentations created with this version of Xcelsius that have text entry fields and labels (such as "Enter the amount") have a problem. When you run the presentation and you use the tab key to jump from one text field to the next you can wind up in a label. Even though the label should be static text, when you type the label will be changed.

At first I couldn't believe it and tried all sorts of weird and wonderful tests along with rereading the documentation (something I usually prefer not to do) and still this bug appeared. So I got in touch with the gurus at EverythingXcelsius.com. They tried out my bug demo and lo and behold, found exactly the same problem.

An update called Xcelsius SP1 was released on Aug. 1 and guess what? It has the exact same bug! How could the Xcelsius QA team miss such an obvious issue? (That, of course, supposes that such a team exists.)

Here's the thing: If you check out the various forums and blogs that discuss Xcelsius you'll find that this is not a happy user community. The features and issues that they had been asking for first from Business Objects and then from SAP were done but done poorly or not at all. In fact most serious Xcelsius developers still use 4.5 because 2008 and 2008 SP1 are so buggy. Moreover, that is despite the fact that there are many things that 4.5 can't do that they really need!

What the various owners of Xcelsius have done is take a truly great, market-defining product and mismanage it into a complete, shambolic mess. It has become unreliable, its performance often terrible and it is horribly buggy.

For those people who are committed to the product -- the third-party developers working with the product's SDK and the corporate and consulting developers who build dashboards and analysis tool -- this has been a huge disappointment and an enormous waste of their time.

And that, dear listeners, is how you ruin a great product. Will there be a happy ending? My friends, that waits to be seen, but so far it doesn't look hopeful.

This story, "Xcelsius: How to Ruin a Great Application" was originally published by Network World.

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