Mobile business intelligence -- Will it take off (for real, this time)?

Mobile business intelligence has struggled to find a foothold, but some vendors and analysts expect a resurgence of interest. Will mobile BI finally deliver on its promise?

Six years ago, when Jim Craig got his first Kyocera Smartphone, he immediately envisioned delivering mobile business intelligence (BI) on the device -- but not everyone appreciated his ideas.

When he shared a prototype, management "laughed [him] out of their office," said Craig, vice president and CIO of Rogers, Ark.-based Cooper Communities Inc., a land and time-share developer. The device was large, its black-and-white screen was small, and the basic concept of BI was still new. Executives didn't see the value -- a problem that's hampered the adoption of mobile BI at Cooper and industry-wide.

Finding early success with mobile BI

Despite the executives' frosty reaction, Craig strongly believed that delivering analytical data and company metrics on mobile devices could help the business. In their spare time, his team quietly developed a mobile-friendly Web interface for their homegrown .NET-based BI system. When mobile technology took a "quantum leap" in 2003, with more colorful and functional devices, Craig knew his BI deployment was only a matter of time. His "ubiquitous BI" system was ready to be deployed as a full-fledged application as soon as someone needed it. That didn't take long.

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 Craig learned about a vice president who constantly called the office for the latest sales figures. An employee would read him the data, a time-consuming process. So Craig showed the executive how his mobile BI tool could help. Soon, Craig was deploying a full-fledged version. Now, the vice president uses his Treo 650 to access real-time sales figures by region and drill down on statistics. Soon, Craig hopes to offer clickable charts and graphs. Other executives took note, especially because many of them travel frequently to manage the company's real estate and land deals. All four business units now use the system, which Craig built in-house for about $30,000. He believes that his executive team is now better equipped to manage the growing company.

"If you have a set of metrics for managing your company and they're always available, in your hands, wherever you are, you can make more informed decisions," Craig said. "Our executives are no longer tethered to their desks."

The long, slow evolution of mobile BI

Craig isn't the only one who's had a hard time proving the value of mobile BI. The technology has been around since the late 1990s but never really took off, owing to a combination of social and technical barriers, according to Mark Smith, chief executive officer and executive vice president of research with San Mateo, Calif.-based Ventana Research. Until recently, companies' adoption of mobile technologies was sporadic. Devices had limited bandwidth and technical incompatibilities, which didn't help the cause. But this may be the year when that all changes, Smith said. BI vendors, including Ottawa-based Cognos Inc. and New York-based Information Builders Inc., are releasing new mobile applications, and organizations are in a better position to appreciate the benefits.

"In the previous years of mobile BI, everybody came out with announcements, but companies weren't mature enough and their workforces were not up to speed," Smith said. "Now, look at the number of business professionals that have BlackBerrys going off every 15 seconds. This has become a mainstream technology."

Investments in mobile BI are now more cost-effective and useful for a company, Smith said. Workers are comfortable using the devices as part of day-to-day life, so there's less of a learning curve for training and deployment. The technology has advanced too, enabling BI vendors to deliver more sophisticated applications on smaller devices. And executives are warming to the benefits of mobile BI, such as being able to respond to critical issues faster and helping managers more proactively manage projects and people, he said.

Mobile BI deployment challenges

Choosing a tool probably won't be hard for most companies, Smith believes. Organizations that have a standardized BI provider should evaluate its mobile offerings, because that's usually the default choice. Those looking for a new BI vendor should include mobile features on their request-for-proposals, he said, because they are a must-have.

New mobile BI tools on the way
Cognos and Information Builders both plan to ship mobile BI products in February. Each vendor has a slightly different strategy, especially when it comes to support for the popular BlackBerry wireless device.  

Cognos 8 Go! Mobile was designed in partnership with Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion Ltd. for BlackBerry wireless devices. It's delivered via a mobile client, which makes it easier for IT to secure and manage, according to Cognos.  

The next version of Information Builders WebFOCUS Active Reports will have new features that work on any device that supports the full Opera Mobile Browser, according to Rado Kotorov, technical director of strategic product management. That notably does not include the BlackBerry -- yet. Opera Mobile support for the BlackBerry is expected soon, though no date has been announced, Kotorov said. He added that the company chose to design its technology around a mobile browser so that it could deliver the same BI tools on many different devices.

Luckily, more BI vendors are making their applications available in mobile form. Although early mobile BI products were released years ago by such companies as McLean, Va.-based Microstrategy Inc.; San Jose, Calif. and Paris-based Business Objects SA; SAP; and others, last fall's big announcements came from Cognos and Information Builders (see sidebar).

However, deploying mobile BI poses unique challenges, Smith said. Security considerations are very important. Companies must consider what information is going outside of their firewall and how they will protect it, he said. Other IT planning is required, as well.

"You have to have the right architectural infrastructure in place, and you may have to have a strategy for the diversity of mobile devices," Smith explained. "And you can't just assume that everybody is ready to digest [mobile BI]. The tools have different approaches, and you need to make sure that it's easy to operate for users."

CIO Jim Craig agreed. The technology should work "like a wristwatch," he said. If it's too complex or requires constant troubleshooting, no one will use it. Gathering requirements has also been a challenge for Craig's team because most people have no idea what they want (or don't want) from a mobile BI tool until they see it. Prototyping was helpful, he said, because it helped spark ideas about how mobile BI could be most useful.

"Our project was geared not just around mobile technology, but mobile technology for executives," Craig said. "We're very focused on delivering the kinds of BI that our executives need and, frankly, we're still learning what that is."

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