Smarter Mobile Devices Drive Demand For Mobile BI Apps

Business intelligence software is helping smartphones live up to their name. And it's adding a touch of brilliance to tablet devices as well.

Desk-bound analysts and IT department developers have traditionally been the heaviest "consumers" of business intelligence technology. But the rapid proliferation of next-generation mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers, is generating a wave of increasingly sophisticated business intelligence software for mobile users.

"It's not just another deployment platform for BI applications. It's a whole new opportunity," said Mychelle Mollot, IBM vice president of worldwide marketing for business analytics.

Industry forecasts back that up. Thirty-three percent of business intelligence functionality will be consumed through hand-held devices by 2013, according to a Gartner forecast.

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Business intelligence has already become the third most in-demand enterprise mobile application, behind only e-mail and personal information management apps such as calendars, according to a market study published in October by independent analyst Howard Dresner. Sixty-eight percent of that survey's participants rated mobile BI as "critical" or "very important" – up from 52 percent in the same study one year earlier.

There's also a growing sense that by developing business intelligence applications for mobile devices, vendors may finally fulfill their long-stated goal of bringing business analytics capabilities to a broad range of business users.

"We absolutely believe mobile is central to the future of business intelligence," said Jeff Boehm, global product marketing vice president at QlikTech, the fast-growing developer of the QlikView business intelligence platform. "The number of places where you're disconnected are becoming fewer and farther in between."

And where providing mobile access for BI applications may have once been an afterthought, vendors today increasingly see mobile devices as the primary means of access. "Everything we do now, we are thinking about mobilizing it first," said Mimi Spier, marketing director for SAP mobile analytics.

Using mobile devices to deliver business intelligence to users isn't a new idea: many major BI applications have long provided some form of mobile access. But often that access took the form of static reports and dashboards with limited options for interaction such as drilling down on a report or querying a database.

That's changing with the more powerful capabilities of today's smartphones and, especially, tablet devices like Apple's iPad.

"A big part of this is the devices that are making this possible," said Dave Becerra, strategy and business development vice president at MeLLmo Inc. MeLLmo develops the popular Roambi visualization software that lets mobile device users access back-end business intelligence systems from multiple vendors, including IBM Cognos, SAS Enterprise BI Server, Oracle Business Intelligence, and SAP BusinessObjects, and displays the analytical results.

"It's just that much more of a riche experience," agreed Justin Norwood, business information management principal at Capgemini. Norwood is also Capgemini's global leader for SAP business analytics; the systems integration company partners with SAP and works with its BusinessObjects software. But Capgemini also works Roambi, IBM Cognos and others.

Despite the enthusiasm for mobile BI, vendors and solution providers generally agree that 2011 was a transition year, where businesses were building the infrastructure needed to support mobile BI and testing different approaches.

"A very large percentage of our customers are trying it," said Dwight de Vera, Arcplan's senior vice president of solutions, Americas. Arcplan is a developer of business intelligence, dashboard, and corporate performance management applications. Mobile BI "is always part of the conversation with our customers and prospective customers," according to de Vera.

"There's tons and tons of 'tire-kicking,'" said Jake Freivald, corporate marketing vice president at Information Builders Inc., a leading independent BI software developer. "But many are still in the strategy formulation stages."

NEXT: Alternative Approaches To Developing Mobile Apps

Vendors developing BI applications for mobile devices have generally taken one of two approaches: creating software for specific devices, or at least specific operating environments such as Apple's iOS or Google's Android; or developing browser-based versions of their BI applications that don't require installing an application on a device.

Many, if not most, have taken the latter approach. Information Builders, for example, offers its browser-based WebFocus business intelligence software for mobile devices. "The basic idea is that we want you to be able to build once and deploy everywhere," said Freivald.

Information Builders has managed to overcome some of the shortcomings of the browser-based approach. WebFocus can recognize the user's device and reformat itself. And while typical browser-based apps generally can't be used offline, WebFocus lets users download data, an analytics engine and a user interface – all in a single file – which the user can work with when, say, flying on a plane without Internet access.

Native applications, however, can offer a user interface that better resembles the look and feel of the specific device. And they can take advantage of a device's specific functionality such as its "location awareness" capabilities.

MeLLmo has taken the approach of developing Roambi as a native application for specific devices. For example, MeLLmo specifically developed its new Roambi Flow business intelligence and information publishing software to take advantage of the iPad's format and capabilities.

"You can get a better user experience," Becerra said, noting that content and data can be cached offline, making it possible to view and analyze it when not connected.

During the last three years QlikTech likewise developed native versions of its QlikView on Mobile software for iPhones, iPads, Android devices and Blackberries, tailoring each for screen size and resolution, available memory and other characteristics.

IBM has taken something of a hybrid approach with its IBM Cognos Mobile software. Android, Windows Mobile and Nokia Symbian devices are supported with a Web-based application, while users of Apple iPhone and iPad devices and the BlackBerry Playbook can use either native or Web clients.

IBM announced expanded IBM Cognos Mobile support for the iPad at its Information on Demand conference in October. The new app, available through Apple's iTunes store, is based on the MHTML standard (Mime HTML, also called "Active Reports") that provides a higher level of interactivity for data drill-down and analysis – even when offline. "The iPad is really the perfect device for this," said IBM's Mollot.

Microsoft reportedly plans to support browser-based versions of Microsoft Reporting Services and PerformancePoint in the first half of 2012, and touch-based applications on iOS and Android devices later in the year.

Earlier this year QlikTech began developing QlikView on Mobile using HTML5, which gives Web-based applications many of the same characteristics of native applications while making it possible to run on any device with HTML5-capable browsers. QlikView on Mobile recognizes the iPad's "touch and swipe" capabilities, for example.

And that's important because it's unlikely that any one kind of mobile device will predominate in the immediate future. IT managers, in fact, face the challenge of supporting a variety of mobile devices given that most people are using their personal phones and tablets rather than company-issued devices.

The BYOD (bring your own device) approach also creates potential security headaches for IT managers who must balance the data access needs of mobile device users with the security needs of the organization.

QlikTech solves that problem through its QlikView 10 server, which provides IT with the ability to centrally manage security for mobile devices. MeLLmo's Roambi leverages the security capabilities of the BI platform it's tapping into and new features recently built into the software make it possible for IT managers to regulate data access from privately owned devices.

Earlier this year IBM began offering its IBM Mobile Technology Preview, an early version of a mobile application development platform that incorporates the WebSphere Liberty Profile, a Java-based, lightweight version of the company's WebSphere application server. Currently supporting the Android mobile OS, the platform will help companies build mobile applications – and the back-end software that supports them – that can be centrally managed.

NEXT: The Solution Provider Opportunity

Some observers see a split coming in the mobile BI market where smartphone users will simply want operational information, such as reports, invoices and shipping schedules, delivered to their mobile device.

"When you look at what people want, they want information. They don't think of it as business intelligence," said Freivald. "Some of our best customers on mobile devices won't realize they are using a BI application."

But the betting is that users of tablet devices such as the Apple iPad will want true business intelligence capabilities and deep analytics, including the ability to submit database queries and drill down into reports.

All this is creating opportunities for solution providers, systems integrators and ISVs.

QlikTech has a network of more than 1,000 channel partners and the growth of mobile business intelligence is creating more opportunities for them, Boehm said. "It makes it easier for partners to go out and resolve a greater range of business problems."

One such partner is Axis Group, a Berkeley Heights, N.J.-based solution provider that has partnered with QlikTech for four years and offers the QlikView software as part of its Compass software line. The Compass software for banking, for example, includes a mobile BI component for the Apple iPad.

Mobile business intelligence sales and services already account for between 10 and 20 percent of the company's revenue, said Principal Ranjan Sinha, and it comes up in about half of all conversations with prospective customers.

"There's a lot of services involved," said Becerra at MeLLmo, which works with Capgemini, Accenture, and Computer Generated Solutions, systems integrators with BI expertise who develop and manage reports for Roambi users.

De Vera sees Arcplan's channel partners playing a role in resolving the security question, such as by setting up secure virtual private networks for mobile BI users, devising encryption strategies, and establishing data access privileges for employees. "These are where we need our channel partners to work with us, and work with our customers and our prospective customers," de Vera said.

Capgemini offers its OnePath service that let's mobile device users access corporate information and applications – including SAP's Business Suite applications and BusinessObjects business intelligence tools. The systems integrator has been developing industry-specific analytical applications for customers' mobile devices, an opportunity Norwood expects to accelerate with new releases of SAP's Sybase Unwired Platform for building mobile applications.

Many mobile BI apps will be either industry-specific or for business roles such as human resource management, says IBI's Freivald. ISV partners will help develop those applications and solution providers will provide services around them. Partners, he said, "are a huge piece of the puzzle."

"This is where the ecosystem, our partners, will come in," said Spier, predicting that solution providers will develop "purpose-built apps" for specific employee roles and lines-of-business around the SAP BusinessObjects Mobile (a mobile version of the vendor's Web Intelligence) and SAP BusinessObjects Explorer software. The company already offers business intelligence applications developed by SAP partners through its online Ecohub site.

"I think it's an advantage for us to have the knowledge and the capabilities," said Sinha at Axis, referring to the company's mobile BI expertise. "It's a differentiator for us."

But he forsees a time not far off when such expertise will be a requirement for solution providers. "Mobile is part of the conversation," he said. "You just have to be there."