Plugging into mobile BI

In the technology world today, convergence is the trend.

In the hardware space, integrated devices are bringing together telephony, e-mail, Web-browsing, calendars, contact lists, cameras and MP3 players, integrating many devices into one.

With more companies issuing handhelds to their mobile workers and executives, leveraging that investment by enabling access to backend business intelligence (BI) systems in the field is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition.

While handheld devices are rapidly becoming pervasive in the business world, Wendy Cukier, associate dean of business at Toronto’s Ryerson University, says it’s unclear if they’re delivering the promised productivity gains.

“I think if you did a cost/benefit analysis you’d find a lot of the use is discretionary and personal,” says Cukier.

To leverage their investment in mobile devices and gain real productivity benefits, Cukier says companies need to look beyond e-mail for delivering mobile access to BI. “That’s the area where we’ve only seen the surface skimmed,” she says.

It’s easy today to push basic BI information to a handheld device, often by e-mail, but it’s a one-way exercise that doesn’t allow for much insight, drilldown and interactivity.

John Haggerty, a vice-president with AMR Research in Boston, says users are starting to ask for more.

“People want to be able to get key metrics and key components of what’s really going on,” says Haggerty. It’s still a work in progress, as the market awakens to the possibilities, the hardware capabilities catch up with the demands, and BI vendors build the capability to support mobile BI directly into their platform offerings. For most vendors today, enabling mobile access means a consulting exercise for their customers. “I don’t think we’re there,” says Haggerty. “Frankly, I think it’s just starting to happen right now.”

It’s a view shared by Christina McKeon, marketing manager for BI at SAS Institute in Raleigh, N.C., who puts mass-market adoption at 12-18 months down the road.

About four or five years ago, wireless vendors were building a lot of hype around mobile computing, but McKeon says the hype faded when it became clear networks weren’t ready to handle the traffic, and neither were the devices. Recently, though, McKeon says more SAS customers have been “kicking the tires” around mobile BI, and technology advances have made it a more viable endeavour.

“Customers are actually starting to think about their BI strategy and are starting to think about deploying it to their mobile workforce,” says McKeon.

The landscape looks similar to that of Microsoft Canada, where Sean Seaton, director of Windows Mobile, says clients are looking for more from their handheld devices than just e-mail and telephony. In nearly every conversation he has with an enterprise customer, he says, mobile access to BI, CRM and other backend systems is top of mind.

“Executives are starting to realize it’s silly to not allow employees to make business decisions while they’re outside the office,” says Seaton. “It seems like we’re handcuffing our employees to the desk.”

The verdict is not unanimous when it comes to the advent of mobile BI. Tobin Gilman, senior product marketing director with Santa Clara, Calif.-based BI vendor Hyperion, says he just doesn’t see the market interest. Hyperion has offered a mobile BI capability as part of its base platform for nearly six years, and he says adoption has been rather low.

“I’ve not seen a lot of interest in that capability or any indication a trend (is developing),” says Gilman, adding that the small screen size of handheld devices is a limiting factor.

“I think people still want to be able to have enough room on their screen to work with data, to analyze data, to manipulate data, and I think handhelds don’t seem well-designed for that function.”


You wouldn’t build your house, or in this case an extension to your house, on a rocky foundation. Likewise, as IT managers prepare to deploy BI access out to their mobile workers, it’s important that they have their infrastructure in order first.

AMR’s Haggerty says a first step is making sure you have the base BI architecture to support the capability. As BI vendors begin to roll-out integrated mobile functionality, that will become a given. It’s also important to poll your user base to determine the devices they’re using and ensure that the user interface you’re pushing out will be compatible with their devices, be they Treos, BlackBerries or PocketPCs.

“You have to figure out who uses what,” says Haggerty. “Are you going to be supporting them all simultaneously or roll them out over time?”

As handhelds gain more access into the corporate backend, security also becomes increasingly important. Haggerty says it’s a good time to ensure you have a robust, mobile-compatible identity management system in place.

Capacity planning is another important step. Don Campbell, vice-president, platform technology and strategy with Ottawa-based BI vendor Cognos, said that as companies roll out mobile BI, the strain on their BI servers is going to increase.

“(You need to) make sure the servers are going to be able to scale to, and handle, much more usage,” says Campbell.

Looking at the big picture, Microsoft’s Seaton says it’s important that IT managers look at mobile BI not as an add-on, but as a core part of their architecture roadmap and planning around BI.

“It’s about extending it to the mobile device versus having a separate architecture roadmap just for your mobile workforce,” says Seaton.


BI vendors eying mobility

As market interest begins to build, business intelligence (BI) vendors are preparing to expand their offerings, looking to be ready to hop aboard the mobile BI train as it leaves the station.

John Haggerty, a vice-president with AMR Research, says Web browsers are the obvious interface for mobile BI. He adds, however, that it is important that vendors don’t just push out existing dashboards. Content needs to be readable on the device and interfaces will have to be customized for different devices. While a BlackBerry might use a track wheel, for example, a Windows Mobile device might use a stylus.

As SAS Institute BI marketing manager Christina McKeon says, the market demand isn’t there yet, but when it is, her firm is ready to roll the capability into its platform quickly.

SAS users can get mobile functionality today via a consulting engagement or an application development kit, and McKeon says these early adopters are seeing good value.

When mobile BI first goes big, McKeon says she expects BI vendors to push out a lot of glitzy graphics and eye candy, but in her experience, users are really just looking for the hard data in a user-friendly environment.

“The customers that are using it from SAS right now are really only asking for it in tabular format,” says McKeon.

For Microsoft users, enabling mobile BI means leveraging Microsoft business partners in a consulting engagement or undertaking what Sean Seaton, director of Windows Mobile for Microsoft Canada, terms a fairly simple Visual Studio programming project.

He also notes that many telcos are offering out-of-the-box mobile services to connect backend systems to handled devices, such as the mForms offering from Rogers Wireless.

Microsoft itself is also beginning to integrate mobile functionality directly into its BI platforms. It released Mobile CRM 3.0 in conjunction with the update of its base CRM offering, and Seaton says the next SharePoint release will include a mobile version.

“Based on the uptake, we’re considering out-of-the-box mobile client access to Microsoft CRM systems and direct access to SharePoint,” says Seaton. “Those are the two that we see the most demand for directly from customers today.”

Ottawa’s Cognos is already hopping aboard the mobile BI train. The vendor has announced that its offering, Cognos 8 Go Mobile, will be available to BlackBerry users in early 2007, with support for other devices to follow shortly thereafter.

Don Campbell, vice-president, platform technology and strategy with Cognos, says when it canvassed its customer base, it heard that BlackBerries were the most popular device, making it a logical place to start.

Campbell added that a device-specific approach was taken because the user experience must be native to the device. While 80 per cent of the code in the solution will be generic, 20 per cent will be device-specific.

Cognos is also eschewing the browser interface approach, citing limits around the handling of network traffic, for a client side application that resides locally on the device. It will pull down pre-determined information on a trickle-feed over the course of the day so that users can access and manipulate reports without delay and when offline.

From a management perspective Campbell says device types won’t be a worry, as the platform will pull BI data out of the Cognos backend, translate it, and feed it out to the end users automatically. Reports will not need to be re-authored for mobile consumption.

“That has been a major barrier to entry to date,” says Campbell. “Everything you write, and whatever the end user requires — assuming they have the right access — can be made available.”

While Hyperion says it hasn’t seen much interest in mobile BI from users, owing to the small screen size of handheld devices, Todd Gilman, senior product marketing manager, says the company has had an offering on the market for some time.

Gilman says users are looking for more from mobile BI than just getting a number and viewing it on a screen. Built into its base BI platform, Hyperion’s mobile offering includes the ability to work while disconnected, allowing users to create plans and model scenarios locally and then synch the changes when reconnected, according to Gilman. The offering also integrates with Microsoft’s mobile suite of Office applications, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

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