This post is part of a short series on the history of analytics, covering:
- Historical notes on analytics — the pre-computer era
- Historical notes on analytic terminology (this post)
- Historical notes on analytics — departmental adoption
Discussions of the history of analytic technology are complicated by the broad variety of product category names that have been used over the decades. So let me collect here in one place some notes on how (and when) various terms have been used, specifically:
- Management information systems
- Decision support (systems)
- Report writer
- Fourth-generation language
- Executive information system
- Business intelligence
- OLAP (OnLine Analytic Processing)
Obviously, I can’t cover everything in this post. Omissions include but are not limited to:
- Anything in the data warehouse/data mart area. (For one thing, I don’t want to deal with the whole Inmon/Kimball dispute.)
- Anything in the predictive analytics area (but see the first point in a 2009 SPSS post).
- Terms I’ve recently sponsored, such as investigative analytics or machine-generated data.
- Big data (analytics) — I just discussed that mess a week ago.
The first prevalent term I recall for “information technology” was management information systems (MIS). I mention that mainly to note that it actually sounded a bit analytics-oriented, and hence to point out that in the old days — 1960s and so on — it didn’t seem necessary to name a separate category that amounted to “analytics”.
Meanwhile, the first prevalent term I recall that covered much of what we’d now call “analytics” was decision support, or decision support systems (DSS). I think DSS was always ill-defined, with multiple subcategories, just as analytics is today. The heyday of this term was in the 1970s/1980s.
Report writers were around in various forms for decades; consider for example the early 1970s history of Cullinane/Cullinet. By the time I became an analyst in the early 1980s, these were mainframe tools that let you specify paper reports, and the market leaders were probably Pansophic’s EASYTRIEVE and Informatics’ Mark IV. According to marketing, they could be used by non-programmers; in reality, they were a much easier way for programmers to do what end users asked. They were used both for one-shot queries and, as their main design point, repetitive reporting.
The report writer category then survived into the era of business intelligence (BI). (Indeed, Cognos’ big integrated BI tool early this century was called ReportNet.) More on that in the BI discussion below.
The term fourth-generation language (4GL) was widely used from the 1970s through the first part of the 1990s. Usually, a 4GL was:
- A vendor-specific programming language …
- … sold in connection with an interpreter …
- … that was particularly good at database manipulation.
In particular, the original 4GLs:
- Were primarily sold and used for analytics.
- Were often sold/used on a remote/timeshared basis.
- Often had some kind of (pre-relational) DBMS bundled in.
Classic examples of such 4GLs included FOCUS (the core product of Information Builders), RAMIS, and NOMAD; SAS arguably started out as a product of that kind too. Starting in the 1980s, however, 4GLs were used more generally, and indeed survived as an OLTP (OnLine Transaction Processing) technology long after they were supplanted by BI tools for most analytic purposes.
The last pre-BI term I want to mention is executive information system (EIS). EIS was in essence the 1980s term for “dashboard”, although the technology was much more primitive than it is today.
The term business intelligence was coined in the 1950s and then reinvented in the 1980s; however, it has described a major category only from the 1990s onward, specifically starting when GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) became prevalent.. “Business intelligence” is sometimes used to comprise all of analytics; more commonly, however, it refers to tools focused on data selection and presentation.
These days, most of what we’d call BI comes in a single integrated package, focused on a dashboard; most of the exceptions are somewhat old-fashioned report writers. In the 1990s and early 2000s, however, business intelligence had several distinct subcategories …
… one of which was called OLAP (OnLine Analytic Processing). Actually, the term “OLAP” has been confusingly been used to mean several different things, including:
- Pretty much all of analytics.
- A particular non-relational DBMS architecture that I prefer to refer to as MOLAP (Multidimensional OLAP).
- An integrated suite of DBMS, 4GL, and perhaps other tools around a MOLAP architecture. (Examples: The IRI Express and Arbor/Hyperion Essbase products Oracle bought.)
- A client-side BI tool with a little MOLAP DBMS built in. (Example: Cognos’ erstwhile flagship BI product PowerPlay.)
I hate the term “OLAP” with a passion, in part due to that confusion, and in part due to the specific way the confusion came about: Ted Codd introduced the term, allegedly objectively, but actually as a marketing shill for Arbor Software, which had an obvious business incentive to pretend that its specific technologies solved a broader class of problems than they actually did.
OK. With that too cleared away, I feel ready to write about the actual history of analytic technology.