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Interest in mobile business intelligence lacking despite vendor push

Jeff Kelly

On the heels of the iPad’s debut, mobile business intelligence (BI) applications are all the rage -- at least, with enterprise software vendors.

Since Apple released the mobile tablet in April, no

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fewer than four vendors -- MicroStrategy, QlikTech, Pentaho and Roambi -- have unveiled iPad- and iPhone-friendly versions of their business intelligence software.

Mega-vendors SAP, Oracle and IBM, meanwhile, have been in the mobile BI game for the last year or two, offering mobile versions of their BI software for the iPhone and BlackBerry. SAP made more mobile computing waves in May with its acquisition of Sybase.

And the IT press has been awash in gushy stories and blog posts heralding the arrival of mobile BI.

That must mean that end users are chomping at the bit to access reports and dashboards on their mobile devices, right? Wrong. Interviews with industry analysts, consultants and BI pros reveal that mobile BI is far from a top priority for most -- and hardly even a consideration for some.

“It certainly wouldn’t be my first priority,” said Jim Szatkowski, vice president of data services at Distribution Market Advantage (DMA), a food-service distributor based in St. Charles, Ill. DMA workers use PivotLink’s Web-based BI software to report on and analyze supply chain and budget data.

While Szatkowski said the possibilities of mobile technology are “fascinating,” he hasn’t seen a mobile BI application that warranted the investment.

“I’m not certain having any more mobility than a laptop is going to be that important to our business,” he said.

The fundamental issue is that mobile users don’t want to do BI per se as it’s defined by the vendors.

Jack Gold, principal analyst, J. Gold Associates

Sumit Agarwa, a BI consultant with Accenture, said that his clients, like Szatkowski’s, have shown little interest in BI applications for smartphones.

“Honestly, I haven't seen any interest in mobile BI applications,” Agarwa said via email.

While mobile BI is suitable “for senior or top-level management who need to access the high-level numbers on the move,” he said, most knowledge workers don’t need access to BI applications in real time and can wait until they get back to their desks to look at reports and run queries.

“For most reporting and BI needs, I don't think there would be much justification for data access through mobile apps,” Agarwa said. “This would make it really difficult to justify the added cost and return on investment on such solutions.”

For some, the small screens of mobile devices make drilling down into reports and dashboards simply unfeasible.

“The granularity of the information is such that [a mobile device] wouldn’t suffice,” said Dick Malaise, CIO at National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) in McLean, Va.

Malaise said the likelihood of NADA investing in mobile BI software anytime soon is close to nil. “I can’t say we’re going to do that,” he said.

Mobile BI applications miss the point
Vendors have yet to make a compelling use case for mobile BI, but they are making progress addressing the functionality concerns of Malaise and others.

While most first-generation mobile BI applications were little more than shrunken versions of their desktop cousins -- making them difficult to navigate -- newer entrants to the mobile BI market take advantage of improvements in the devices themselves.

Users can navigate MicroStrategy’s mobile BI application for the iPhone, for example, via new “Apple multi-touch gestures, such as swipe, tap, flick and rotate,” according to the company.

Roambi, considered by analysts to have among the best mobile BI apps, offers users a multitude of ways to view data, from interactive bar charts to wheel graphs that can be manipulated via drag-and-drop functionality.

But Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, thinks that by focusing on improving the functionality of mobile BI apps, enterprise software vendors are missing a larger point.

“The fundamental issue is that mobile users don’t want to do BI per se as it’s defined by the vendors,” Gold said.

Drilling down into large volumes of data via interactive reports and dashboards on mobile devices doesn’t interest most knowledge workers, he said. They can wait until they’re back in front of their desktop or laptop for that.

What knowledge workers do want, according to Gold, is to be notified, via triggers and alerts, of important events that require immediate action.

Rather than accessing and drilling down into a monthly sales report, for example, a salesperson would rather get an alert when an important client cancels a large order.

Identifying overarching sales trends is important but not overly time-sensitive. An angry client who cancels a large order, however, demands immediate action.

“[Users] want information about a problem that allows them to act quickly,” Gold said. “That’s the kind of useful information people want [on mobile phones].”

Mobile BI security concerns linger
Security is another issue, according to Chris Hazelton, an analyst at the 451 Group. Before an organization gives employees access to critical corporate data on mobile devices, it must be sure it has ways to manage the application and wipe the device of data should it be lost or stolen.

Even then, some companies still aren’t eager to deploy mobile BI.

Silvio Schurig, a consultant at Switzerland-based Datelligence GmbH, said he recently spoke to two financial services clients about deploying mobile applications like BI.

Schurig said that they are simply not interested in deploying and managing more applications on multiple platforms, “particularly … if these applications deal with sensitive data.”

Until vendors better address security concerns and start designing applications that meet users’ needs, mobile BI isn’t likely to gain much of a foothold, Gold said.

So, despite reports to the contrary, it appears that mobile BI’s time has not come just yet.


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