Real Questions for BI Vendors
Click through to see the questions Ann discovered that can make a tangible difference in your diligence.
Wow, a lot has changed since I wrote a post titled Do Users Really Want BI and CRM on the Go in 2008. Some things, like vendors' interest in offering mobile business intelligence applications, have remained the same. But most of the factors I cited as impediments to mobile BI are no longer hurdles.
Why would anyone want to look at lots of data on mobile devices with tiny screens, limited storage, memory and computing power, I asked in my post. With phones getting smarter and smarter, no one should find themselves in that position anymore.
And Apple's iPad certainly renders those limitations moot. IT Business Edge contributor Mike Vizard recently spoke with Mark LaRow, VP of products for BI software provider Microstrategy, which supports both the iPhone and the iPad. LaRow told Vizard the iPad's intuitive interface eliminates the need to train users on how to use it and gives them the screen real estate they need to mash up data any way they want.
Earlier this month, Vizard also spotlighted a software-as-a-service BI application from Birst that can be accessed via the iPhone, the BlackBerry, Google Android smartphones and other mobile computing devices. A benefit of this approach, said Birst CEO Brad Peters, is that it eliminates the need to use PCs to remotely access BI apps that need to be synchronized with an application on the PC. With smartphones, users can directly access the application over wireless networks.
Still, one of the issues raised in my 2008 post niggles at me. While cloud computing and in-memory data structures make it possible to remotely perform some fairly sophisticated BI tasks, will anyone want to? Maybe not. As Vizard notes, Birst's application is geared toward the BI needs of "average" business executives rather than business analysts that use on-premise BI software from companies such as SAP, IBM and SAS Institute.
That mostly means looking at dashboards and reports rather than actually creating them. As Curt Monash writes on DBMS2, "mobile BI seems to be about small, portable dashboards," with folks using them mostly to access data in a timely manner rather than to make crucial business decisions.
The examples he offers: getting information about prospects right before a sales call or checking on a customer's order status during a sales call; checking a logistics or maintenance issue such as airline (re)scheduling, truck/warehouse dispatching or medical procedure availability; and comparing benchmarks such as customer purchases or machine uptime when you are at a location where such data is highly relevant.
Mobile BI, writes Monash, is "pretty straightforward stuff" for now, with little need for more sophisticated analytic capabilities.
It's worth a click-through to a Computerworld article Monash references in his post. It offers examples of BI apps being used by several companies, most of which seem to fall squarely into the "information access" category. Salespeople at biotechnology tool maker Life Technologies, for example, use Mellmo's Roambi data visualization app to view sales quotas and daily sales reports on their BlackBerries and iPhones.
There's real value in making BI data more accessible to more people within an organization. And that's what mobile BI does. There's little question it's growing. According to the Computerworld article, surveys administered by Aberdeen Group showed a 6 percent increase in the number of companies using mobile BI apps over the past two years. (Granted, that doesn't sound like much, but consider this increase took place during a nasty recession.)
The article mentions a slew of apps offered by all the BI biggies -- IBM, SAP, SAS Institute, etc. -- and a bunch of startups as well. As Monash writes, the author "cites just about every vendor except Microstrategy as seeing or indeed pushing this trend - and that probably just means Microstrategy didn't return his call quickly enough, as they're betting heavily on the mobile BI trend themselves." One of the executives interviewed in the piece predicts smartphones will replace laptops for most mobile workers in the next decade -- which will create a need for more apps designed for those devices.