IBM goes freemium with new natural language analytics service

IBM is known as an enterprise IT company. In fact, it’s known as the enterprise IT company. But the company made an interesting adjustment to its strategy on Tuesday, announcing a new data analysis tool, called Watson Analytics, that’s offered as a freemium cloud service and targets users from secretaries up to CEOs.

It’s a wise decision for a company that touts itself as the world’s biggest and best analytics vendor, but has also watched others own the discussion about data-driven companies and employee empowerment via data. [company]Microsoft[/company], for example, has been releasing feature after feature to make Excel easier and more powerful, and even released one, called Q&A, that’s not too dissimilar from Watson Analytics. There are also startups upon startups — including DataRPM, ThoughtSpot and UpShot Data — pushing tools for simplifying business analytics, increasingly incorporating natural language queries as a way to save users from having to understand SQL or data structures.

Although it doesn’t do natural language, it’s safe to assume Tableau’s success in offering free and desktop versions of its analytics software — and its move into the mobile software — hasn’t escaped IBM, either. Even [company]Google[/company], which already has some powerful big data services, could become a threat as it moves to court smaller businesses and individual users, possibly with better tools for analyzing their smaller data.

Credit: IBM

A screenshot of Watson Analytics. Credit: IBM

Alistair Rennie, the general manager of IBM’s Business Analytics division, acknowledged that as powerful as other [company]IBM[/company] technologies are — including Watson Analytics’ namesake Watson cognitive computing system — they have left certain business people out in the cold. With Watson Analytics, he said, “Essentially, if you’re able to use a spreadsheet, you’re now going to be able to perform data scientist work independently.”

The guiding light in designing the product was “making it an absolute joy to use for businesspeople in just about every role,” Rennie added. “… We want to put this in the hands of as many businesspeople as possible [with as little friction as possible].”

In terms of the workflow, Watson Analytics sounds like it works how one would expect. In the free version, users can upload their datasets and the service’s software will help them clean it up and get it in shape for analyzing, ideally with as little user effort as possible. Users will be able to make simple natural language queries of the data (e.g., “Show me the top regions by sales.”) as well as other types of analysis, including predictive models, and get back visual, easy-to-understand results.

There’s also a feature (which sounds a little like what ClearStory Data does) for helping users bolster their analysis by suggesting other relevant data they’ve uploaded, or possibly external sources.

“I don’t think easy is necessarily the right word,” Rennie said, describing the user experience. “We’ve tried to create an exciting environment.”

Credit: IBM

How the service surfaces correlations and relevant data. Credit: IBM

But this being IBM, there’s a path in place from individual users to enterprise sales. Many popular cloud services were brought into organizations from the bottom up — by developers or engineers using free services that ultimately proved their value and possibly became integral — and Rennie thinks IBM’s legacy puts it in a great position to “connect the dots from the individual right through enterprise seamlessly.”

He broke down the pricing tiers into free, individual, departmental and enterprise, with features such as storage volume, database connections, access management and certain analytic functions increasing at each level.