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With mobile BI, don't just put lipstick on a database

Mobile BI continues to revel in popularity. But to take advantage of the technology, businesses need to make sure their data houses are in order, a Gartner analyst says.

Mobile business intelligence (BI) is like a veneer: It makes the data look good. But according to Andreas Bitterer, that feature can also be a detriment to organizations.

"Mobile BI will make your worst data look its best," said Bitterer, an analyst with the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "You could make decisions based on that bad data."

In other words, the benefit of owning a sleek, handheld device is one thing, but BI -- mobile or otherwise -- should be built on a foundation of best practices, which includes a data quality regime. The advice came as part of Bitterer's recent webinar presentation, Current State and Future Trends of Mobile Business Intelligence. To help businesses get their bearings on the market, Bitterer provided an overview of where mobile BI currently stands, where it may be headed and what to consider before investing.

More often than not, handheld devices are brought into an organization by top-level personnel. The most common users of tablets (especially Apple's iPad) tend to be CEOs, managers and executives who are sold on both the cool and convenience factors: These devices provide an easy, visual way to access and consume data, according to Bitterer.

But that is bound to change. While BI conferences have become inundated with talk of mobility, Bitterer described the market as young and exploratory. Businesses, he said, are still just figuring out what the technology can do. And, as the months tick by, Bitterer expects more and more interesting use cases -- those that delve beyond the corporate office -- to pop up.

Don't dive in, but don't be left out

Smartphones and tablets are appealing, Bitterer said, but they can also carry a pretty steep, sometimes not-so-easy-to-see price tag.

Business should consider not only the sticker price of handheld devices, but also the bandwidth costs needed to operate them. Plus, for a program to be successful, businesses should invest in development and employee training.

"And then there's the productivity cost," he said. Employees should logically accomplish more using mobile tools, but Bitterer said that's only a temporary truth.

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While cost (and other factors such as a lack of practical use cases) may dissuade businesses from investing in mobile BI technology right now, don't let it, Bitterer said, especially as vendors and applications continue to mature. Today, businesses could conceivably introduce tools such as image recognition, location intelligence and natural language processing into their BI arsenal. And that doesn't include what might be just around the corner.

These handheld devices will have their own persistence mechanisms, he said. They'll be able to run analytic algorithms. They'll collect information through ad-hoc networks, respond to voice commands and may even have write-back capabilities.

But Bitterer also believes businesses should determine where mobile technology will be useful before making that investment. To do so, he recommends gathering employees together for a good, old-fashioned brainstorming session.

"Just talk to your end users," he said. "Who are those people who could benefit from handheld devices? And who are those [employees] collecting information?"

Figuring out answers to questions like these can help businesses target unique use cases for mobile BI within their organizations: tablets in medical facilities, gate attendees at airports and even truck drivers.

"Tablets can help collect information from the truck engine that tell how that driver is driving," Bitterer said. "And the driver submits it back to headquarters."

The data can help produce a driver profile, which can be linked to transactional data, and businesses can extract information on the wear and tear of the vehicle as well as what factors might influence fuel efficiency.

These brainstorming sessions should include people who think outside of the box, Bitterer said. Additions like these could prove to be invaluable. Besides, he said, there are no bad answers.

Taking the next steps

Businesses ready to invest in mobile BI technology first need to make sure they have a solid information management program to build on.

"Otherwise, you just put lipstick on [a] database," said Bitterer, drawing on the now infamous lipstick on a pig reference.

In fact, while adding a mobile BI program to the mix will certainly have its challenges, Bitterer said it will seem more manageable comparatively.

"The mobile BI efforts are simple and easy compared to everything else you need to do," he said. "Top executives don't realize that there's a lot of work before mobile BI becomes interesting."

Next, businesses may need to wade through the numerous vendors currently on the market. Those include a mix of players both big (think IBM and Oracle) and small (think ComponentArt and MeLLmo). The smaller vendors are, for the most part, rendering engines with no data storage behind them. While these vendors can produce compelling visualizations, they are also incredibly niche, Bitterer said.

"This stuff isn't rocket science," he said. "They will feel the heat from bigger vendors."

Businesses will have to consider whether to build a native application through the Apple or Android operating system (Bitterer expects Microsoft to make an entrance here as well) or build a browser-based application using HTML 5.

Both routes have strengths and weaknesses. Native applications, for example, have the best context awareness due to API access on the devices. Brower-based applications are stronger when moving across platforms because businesses will only need to build once; maintenance is also easier through a browser-based application for this reason. Performance, on the other hand, is better through a native application because connectivity issues may be an inhibitor.

"It depends on what you want," Bitterer said. "There isn't one answer."

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