Mobile Business Intelligence Goes Mainstream

Wednesday Nov 16th 2011 by Larry Marion
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The debate rages over access to mobile BI via native apps vs. browser-based solutions.

The debate over whether to provide mobile device access to enterprise business intelligence applications and data stores is over.

The result: If your shop doesn't provide access, then top IT management will be looking for a new job very soon. The new and hot debate is over how you provide that access—via a native app or a browser experience.

New surveys and reports from Aberdeen Group and Dresner Advisory Services make it clear that smartphones and tablets, especially the iPad and Android units, are not only the preferred device for mobile access, but the preferred device for access, period.

"Consider making mobile devices the primary platform for BI deployments," Aberdeen recommended in a December 2010 mobile business intelligence report based on a fall 2010 survey. "Top performing organizations rely on secure access to up-to-date management information, anywhere, anytime." Howard Dresner's analysis of the data from an October 2011 survey is even stronger about the mobile device access to BI: "We are in the midst of a fundamental paradigm shift towards Mobile (and Mobile BI), as significant as the Internet itself," he noted in a recent mobile BI report.

In an interview, he agreed with the Aberdeen view that mobile devices will become the primary delivery method for BI access within several years—"this is a profound shift," he says.

How profound? Dresner's survey found that almost half of the respondents predict that mobile device use will hit at least 40% of their user base by 2014 (see table). Since they estimate current penetration at 15%, you can see the strength of the demand.

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Source: Dresner Advisory Services

It will come as no surprise to anyone that the demands for mobile device access to BI apps and data stores are primarily coming from high-level executives and field sales. While the latter just want access to be easy and fast, the former want the ability to explore and discover and solve problems or pursue opportunities. In fact, Dresner says many execs are abandoning their desktop and laptop PCs in favor of a tablet device even when they're in the office.

And as every IT pro knows, what the C suite wants, the C-suite gets.

While the two surveys have less than 200 respondents each, when added to other surveys I've reviewed over the past year, the conclusion is obvious--the big mobile device issue of 2012 is how IT delivers the access to enterprise apps, like BI.

Roughly two thirds of the users of Apple mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) polled by Dresner preferred the native app approach in 2011, while half preferred a native app approach for Android smartphones. When it comes to Android tablets, there's an even split among native vs. browser preferences.

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Source: Dresner Advisory Services

The IT bias toward the browser solution is due to technical expediency: the short term, quick and dirty answer to the question of how to deliver the access is via a browser experience, especially if your shop can support an HTML5 solution to the demand.

Providing access to pre-formed cubes and tables via a browser, along with alerts via email, IM or RSS, can deliver a lot of the functionality users want and expect without a lot of work by the IT department. If your shop can deploy an interactive experience via HTML – enabling users to explore the data rather than just digest pre-configured reports – so much the better.

David White, senior research analyst for Business Intelligence at Aberdeen Group, is firmly in the browser camp. "A number of organizations and vendors have introduced browser -based access, and it is fine, especially with HTML5," he says. "Many vendors are rendering to HTML anyhow. While the browser approach is not always fine-tuned for the tablet, it is the way to go."

He warns against the native app approach due to the burdens it would place on the IT department. "While it may be fine from a user perspective to just download a native app from an online app store, what about security and reliability of a corporate wide program, with multiple device types?" he asks. "That's a big challenge."

Howard Dresner sees the native app approach as the better approach. "What users want is a very interactive and visual experience with a native application," he contends. "And they want to get it from an app store, where it is easy to find and easy to install and use right away. They don't want to live inside the browser."

Dresner agrees with White that shops using HTML5 can provide the happy medium—an interactive browser-based experience.

Also, there is the vendor reality check involved in this debate. Organizations that have standardized on Blackberry devices will have a tougher time finding a native app for their BI applications. And given Research In Motion's declining market share in the smartphone world, and weak tablet offering, IT shops are probably rethinking their long term commitment to that vendor.

Of course, the large, legacy BI vendors are rolling out modules to deliver a native experience. And many startups already offer this approach. So over time IT shops will be able to safely offer the native experience that many users crave.

Curious about how the access technique will evolve? You can participate in the latest Aberdeen survey by going to this web site and taking a mobile BI survey. In return you'll receive a copy of the report.

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