Tableau Software has launched a free online tool for turning complex data into graphical forms. Though primarily aimed at business users and 'amateur spreadsheet jocks', the tool could quite easily be used by designers and ilustrators to create infographics.

Called Tableau Public, the Web service offers all of the features of the Seattle startup's flagship desktop app, along with Web hosting of the user-created charts, all at zero cost.

The main focus of Tableau Public is at consumers. Christian Chabot, data geek-turned-CEO of Tableau, said the company has invested millions of dollars into Tableau Public, which he believes will lead to the widespread popularization of 'vizs' -- the colorful, interactive charts built by Tableau users (to see some examples, check out Tableau's blog).

"We think millions of people will check it out," he said in an interview earlier this month. "If you look at the history of the Web, you can see it was originally all text. Then Flickr and Picasa exploded and images became a first-class citizen."

"The third type of content to arrive was video -- think Flash Video and YouTube," Chabot continued. "The fourth major type of content that people create is data. But no one yet has enabled it."

That is until Tableau Public, he said, which he wants "to be as fun and accessible as online video."

"Students. Bloggers. Journalists. Sports nuts -- they like data, but they would never consider themselves a business analyst," he said. "If you can use Excel, you can use Tableau."

Well, not exactly. While pros say Tableau Public is far easier to pick up than typical business intelligence packages, such as those from SAS Institute or SAP's Crystal Reports, it can still be painful for those who aren't pros at building pivot tables in Excel, as journalists from our sister title Computerworld discovered while creating a viz in a story published this week.

Tableau has plenty of training videos on its site and an active user forum. And as Computerworld's viz shows, the rewards for slogging through can be many: the ability to crunch data using quick-and-easy drag and drops, which can lead to fast, surprising discoveries, Chabot said.

"The state of BI dashboards today is that you start with your data in text form, and then you munge it and mash it until you've gotten your answer, and then you go and launch some chart wizard that asks you what template you want," he said. "We want you to manipulate vizs like a canvas, so you can think with the data and see patterns and trends revealed."