Mobile BI: How to Run Your Business On the iPad
Business intelligence consultant Doug Lautzenheiser, general manager of Cincinnati-based Partner Intelligence, believes Apple's iPad may be the greatest thing to hit BI since, well, the dashboard.
"We think mobile devices are just more convenient for BI," Lautzenheiser says. "You have them with you all the time. They're always on - a touch of a button and you're right there - regardless of location.
"People often need [BI] information in meetings, for example, and sure, you could take a notebook PC in with you. But now, it's even easier: you can take a tablet."
Lautzenheiser is by no means alone in seeing the unique benefits to BI users of mobile devices in general and the iPad in particular.
A handful of BI system vendors - including SAP Business Objects, QlikTech International AB, MicroStrategy Inc., Yellowfin and Pentaho Corp. - have already launched dedicated apps for Apple's iOS mobile operating system.
Extended Results Inc., a Microsoft-based BI systems developer and integrator, offers PushBI Mobile Business Intelligence for iPhone and iPad. And MeLLmo Inc. built its Roambi suite from the ground up as a mobile BI solution on the iOS platform.
Roambi was the most impressive BI app we saw on the iPad. It pulls data from existing backend sources and displays it in slick, BI dashboard-style visualizations that take full advantage of the iPad's multitouch interface.
A Roambi-ized report on retail sales and traffic by region and store, for example, uses the Cardex visualization app, one of several the company developed. It presents data for stores as tabbed index cards grouped by region.
The user can scroll through the cardbox using multitouch gestures and then tap a card to bring up detailed charts and graphs. These can be further manipulated and customized using swipes and other gestures. And up to four store reports can be displayed simultaneously for comparison.
The company has ready-made hooks into SAP BusinessObjects and IBM Cognos, as well as sources that are not pure BI such as Microsoft Office Excel, Google Docs, Crystal Reports, Salesforce CRM, and Microsoft Reporting Services.
Some vendors, including MeLLmo, have already updated their iOS apps for the iPad. It's a clearly superior platform for BI, Lautzenheiser argues.
"You've got the larger screen, higher resolution, better color. There's just more space to work with, a bigger palette - and that means more interaction with the screen. Plus, it's only 1.5 lbs: you can carry the thing anywhere."
Many vendors are now promoting the concept of iPad-based BI in their marketing - MeLLmo included.
Much of Roambi's value proposition is based on its ease of use, says co-founder and president Quinton Alsbury. The iPad hardware and interface clearly plays into that, but it's also the way Roambi exploits them. The Cardex app, for example shows the difference clever design can make.
"We took all this data and put it into an extremely easy-to-navigate presentation," Alsbury says. "If you put that into anyone's hands, they know immediately what to do with it. And it's just more pleasurable to use - which means it gets used more."
Many enterprises have struggled to roll out BI systems to a wider population beyond bean counters and egghead analysts, partly because systems are too complex for many employees to easily learn and use, he says.
"Companies spend millions on a business intelligence system, and it only takes them 99% of the way. No one uses the thing because they can't figure it out, so the company gets absolutely no return."
Adding Roambi as a visualization front end to an existing system can significantly boost return on investment in BI, Alsbury claims.
Makers of backend BI systems such as MicroStrategy and SAP Business Objects are trying to bring the same benefits to their users with dedicated iPad/iPhone apps. But judging by demos available at Apple's App Store, none has made as good use yet of the iPad platform.
The MicroStrategy app shows promise, with attractive, sometimes animated dashboard views. But compared to the Roambi apps, they're static, with only limited interactivity and little exploitation of the iPad's gestural interface. They also force users to view visualizations in either portrait or landscape orientation.
The QlikView demo on the iPad does make more use of multitouch gestures, employing an iPod album cover-style sorting and browsing mechanism. But at least in the demo, individual views tend to be drab-looking spreadsheets and not very interactive. Reports in the Yellowfin demo are sometimes graphical but also, for the most part, static.
Roambi is much faster than any of the other demos we looked at too. This is in part because of the system architecture. The Roambi server at the customer's premises pushes data to the iPad, or updates data on demand - there are a few ways it can work.
But the common factor is that the data resides on the iPad, so response times are lightning fast.
"Roambi is really a high-end presentation layer for BI on the mobile platform," Alsbury says. "The user experience is our key value proposition, and in order to provide the best possible user experience, the data has to be local."
Lautzenheiser argues that this is ultimately not practical in many BI systems because there is simply too much data - terabytes in some retail applications for example.
The demos of dedicated apps from the BI system vendors may not give an entirely accurate picture of what is possible for organizations willing to invest in customizing and tuning them. But on the evidence, and from a user perspective, the Roambi approach is miles ahead.
The whole notion of mobile - and specifically iPad-based - BI is still in its infancy, though, Lautzenheiser cautions. Few enterprises have embraced it wholeheartedly yet, although that may only be because it's so new, he adds.
The recent BI Market Survey from Dresner Advisory Services bears this out. Most of the respondents, BI administrators and IT managers, said fewer than 10% of their users had access to mobile BI.
But the survey made clear that many see mobility as a must-have capability going forward and a potential game-changer for BI. Seventeen percent said mobile BI was critically important, 35 percent said it was very important, 37 percent had it as "somewhat" important.
And more than a third said they would change BI vendors to get satisfactory mobile capabilities.
Lautzenheiser's firm, meanwhile, is pushing the idea of iPad-based BI to its clients. One way it's doing this is by developing browser-based applications for clients that are optimized both for the iPad (or iPhone) and desktop, which is relatively easy to do
There may still be some resistance to the iPad as an enterprise device, he says. Apple the iPad as a purely consumer product at first. But that perception of it is already changing and will continue to change, he says.
"Apple is working harder now to make this more of a corporate tool," Lautzenheiser says. He points to changes in iOS 4.2 for iPad that will add many features that IT managers want, including beefed-up security, better support for VPNs and improved manageability - it will be possible for administrators to see remotely which users' iPads are connected and when.
Security is of course a "huge" concern for IT managers when it comes to BI because the data is so vital. Alsbury too says Apple has made strides in tightening security on iOS, but notes that the Roambi architecture adds additional reassurances including remote lock and data wipe capabilities to deal with lost or stolen devices.
If your organization uses business intelligence, it's easy to explore the possibilities of mobile, iPad-based BI. Look at the demos included with free BI apps in Apple's App Store. And if your vendor doesn't have an app available - ask them why not?