While R has more methods than any other analytics software, it has been missing a crucial feature found in most other packages. SPSS Modeler had it first, way back when they still called it Clementine. Then SAS Institute realized how crucial it was to productivity and added it to Enterprise Miner. As its reputation spread, it was added to RapidMiner, Knime, Statistica, Weka, and others. An early valiant attempt was made to add it to R. What is it? It’s the flowchart-style graphical user interface. And it will soon be available in R at last.
While menu-driven interfaces such as R Commander, Deducer or SPSS are somewhat easier to learn, the flowchart interface has two important advantages. First, you can often get a grasp of the big picture as you see steps such as separate files merging into one, or several analyses coming out of a particular data set (see figure). Second, and more important, you have a precise record of every step in your analysis. This allows you to repeat an analysis simply by changing the data inputs. Instead, menu-driven interfaces require that you switch to the programs that they create in the background if you need to automatically re-run many previous steps. That’s fine if you’re a programmer, but if you were a good programmer, you probably would not have been using that type of interface in the first place!
This week Revolution Analytics and Alteryx announced that future versions of Revolution R Enterprise will include Alteryx’ flowchart-style graphical user interface. Alteryx has traditionally focused on the analysis of spatial data, only adding predictive analytics in 2012 (skip 37 minutes into this presentation.) This partnership will also allow them to add Revolution’s big data features to various Alteryx products. Both companies are likely to get a significant boost in sales as a result.
While I expect both companies will benefit from this partnership, they could do much better. How? By making the Alteryx interface available for the community (free) version of R. If most R users were familiar with this interface, they would be much more likely to choose Alteryx’ tools when they needed them, instead of a competitor’s. When people needed big data tools for R, they’d be more likely to turn to Revolution Analytics. I am convinced that as great as R’s success has been, it could be greater still with a top-quality flowchart user interface that was freely available to all R users. Given the great advantages that this type of interface offers, it’s just a matter of time until a free version appears. The only question is: who will offer it?
[Update: It turns out that Alteryx is already offering a free version that works with the community version of R! See the comment from Dan Putler, product manager and one of the primary developers of Alteryx's R-based predictive analytics and business data mining tools. I'll be trying this out and will report my experiences in a future blog post.]