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For years, mobile business intelligence applications have been talked about as the next big thing. But clearer use cases and improved functionality have upgraded the status of BI mobile apps to today's must-have.
"There was a lot of talk around BI and mobile but unless you were an early adopter you didn't see a whole lot of BI mobile usage," said Scott Golden, co-founder and vice president of services at consulting firm Decision First Technologies. "Now today I'd say 50% of my clients have a BI mobile application in place or they have a roadmap."
Who are the primary users?
Experts say sales departments are the primary users of mobile BI technology today. The use case there is the most obvious. Sales representatives in the field must connect back to office data systems to look up pricing information, run what-if analyses for different sales prospects and show visualizations to prospective clients.
At the same time, technological improvements have made BI mobile apps more useful. Golden said Wi-Fi Internet access is more ubiquitous than ever, which allows applications to run data-intensive processes. Also, many companies are running in-memory applications, which greatly speed up the time it takes to process data. That makes it possible for salespeople to run analyses on the spot for a client.
Executives are also becoming major users. Because of the nature of their work, they are rarely at their desks, Golden said. However, they still need to be able to access information wherever they are. For this reason many companies are creating simplified mobile dashboards that allow executives to quickly check a set of predetermined key performance indicators from wherever they are.
Can one application play across multiple devices?
Mobile BI buyers need to beware when they go to market. Golden said a lot of vendors are pushing products that claim to deliver the same experience across all platforms, whether desktop or mobile. While some software companies are actually delivering on this promise -- Golden mentioned SAP as one of them -- others are creating applications that either fail to deliver or present challenges that limit design flexibility.
You don't want to get into a situation where you have to build a system for your office users and your mobile users
Scott Golden, co-founder and vice president of services, Decision First Technologies
"A lot of software companies would like to have a solution that, you build a look for the content and whatever device you render it through, it becomes appropriate for that device," he said. "In some applications that works well, but in order to do that, you can't give many options around layout for the person making the design."
A main challenge of cross-device functionality is screen size. Mobile devices have aspect ratios and screen resolutions that differ from those on desktop monitors. This means that features such as radio buttons or navigation capabilities might be usable on a desktop but difficult on mobile devices.
How do I make sure my data is secure?
Golden said security is one key part of implementing BI mobile apps that some companies overlook. Information needs to be accessible to workers when they're on the go, but it shouldn't be too easy for outsiders to break in.
Step one is to get your infrastructure in place. A good firewall will help control access, Golden said. Next, lay out your policies. A lot of companies are putting bring-your-own-device policies in place and allowing workers to access enterprise data and applications from their own phones. Policies for doing so need to be clear before any employee starts using their own device. Finally, add a layer of security as a fallback. Golden said that even when policies and access controls are in place, people still lose their devices. This is why it's important to have a mobile device management system like those from MobileIron, AirWatch or Citrix, which can remotely wipe sensitive information from a device.
How do I integrate BI mobile apps with my desktop apps?
Integration should be a primary consideration when selecting a mobile system, Golden said.
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"You don't want to get into a situation where you have to build a system for your office users and your mobile users," he said.
One simple thing businesses can do is check with their existing BI vendor to see what mobile offerings they have. Chances are that integrating mobile and desktop apps from one vendor will be easier than integrating apps from multiple vendors. Golden said some vendors may even offer mobile services for free, depending on existing contracts.
Ultimately, though, businesses should make sure the mobile app they are implementing is right for their needs, not just convenient to integrate. Ask vendors you are evaluating how well their products integrate with your existing systems.