Mobile BI is a long way from mature, but there are ways users and vendors can make it work now — and your CRM program will reap the benefits.
The typical user's idea of mobile business intelligence is that of a cellphone performing analytics (reports, dashboards, ad-hoc queries) against a company database, just as smartphone access to Facebook provides social networking across the global Web, or just as we can track Amazon shipments via cellphone access to its business-process apps.
The surprising fact is that today, cellphone analytics is indeed the main value-add of mobile business intelligence (BI) — when it could be so much more. You see, mobile technology also allows individual users such as real estate brokers and insurance agents to create their own personalized data stores and use them for carrying out transactions in the customer's home or on the road; and there is little to prevent this being extended to analyzing those transactions and data stores in an overall business context. But this capability is typically not yet on the horizon for smartphone users, while the obvious alternative candidate for delivering these capabilities — the laptop — is branded "old technology" and is not the primary focus of either customers or vendors.
What Mobile is Really About — and How BI Should Adapt
The idea of mobile technology is a full virtual personal environment (applications, data, Web) accessible at any location, on any preferred device. The reality of mobile today is of different partial personal environments, with different degrees of accessibility, depending on the device.
- The laptop is well suited to tap into business, personal, and Web environments, both business and personal, but is not a preferred form factor and is only intermittently connected.
- The specialized device (iPad, Kindle) is a narrowly focused but extensible product that typically taps into a business or Web environment, and is an increasingly popular alternative form factor that can be semi-continuously connected.
- The cell/smart phone has created its own partial personal environment that is increasingly full and is pretty much accessible anywhere, but due to the fact that phone companies are involved, lags in its ability to customize for particular business requirements — and its small form factor necessarily limits its ability to support certain personal and business tasks, such as displaying summaries of massive amounts of data.
Meanwhile, the way these devices are used in the workplace continues to change exceptionally rapidly. Today's work tasks and locations, and the mobility of many workers, have changed dramatically over the last ten years, fueled by increasing organizational sophistication in redesigning and empowering jobs for greater competitive advantage and cost savings. Resulting new roles include mobile/flexible worker (geographical mobility or flexibility in assuming new roles), customer-facing data miner (using BI, the "organizational face" to the customer must access more corporate information "in real time"), and empowered employee (the worker should have the best mobile-enabled tools for the job, tools that enable full worker control over tasks). In effect, the organization has created a "mobile workplace" consisting of a new set of mobile end-user support systems and software.
To support this mobile workplace, software-infrastructure products have integrated key mobile/wireless and laptop technologies (such as smart phones and WiFi) and user roles (such as the traveling salesperson accessing E-business Web sites and Net Markets). Providing this "mass-deployment" mobile-workplace support is a bit complicated — a plethora of new devices, new standards, new applications and new infrastructure software keeps arriving. Moreover, computer BI programming skills do not always translate well to device-software development, in part because the user interface is smaller. A typical architecture is not simple, either; it may include wired laptops, Internet appliances and existing "legacy" devices — machinery, instruments, sensors and other discrete data-generating devices — as well as wireless devices like handhelds and smartphones.
To fully support the mobile workplace, BI vendors should provide:
- Client software that is resource-efficient (small footprint) and supported on multiple platforms to fit on a wide variety of devices.
- Support for "offline" software operation so that client software can continue to provide value when the connection to a central server is lost. Offline operation allows the user to reduce "out of area" disruptions and place orders without waiting for a connection to a central order-processing system.
- Web, Web service, enterprise messaging/calendaring and synchronization support. These allow standardized flexible, cost-effective communication, not only within an organization but also across organizational boundaries.
- Central- and local-database access. The first gives access to corporate and "historical" information; the second allows the end user to customize and personalize information for more effective communication with customers.
Wayne Kernochan of Infostructure Associates has been an IT industry analyst focused on infrastructure software for more than 20 years.
<h1>The State of the Mobile Business Intelligence Market</h1>
The flood of innovation that has characterized Web apps in general continues to fuel rapid build-out of Mobile business intelligence. In the smartphone area, BI capabilities are beginning to move beyond generation of reports from corporate sales databases to more sophisticated analytics (alerts and simple dashboards), industry-specific apps in verticals such as healthcare (mobile physical therapy), and access to cloud BI. In the laptop area, extensions of BI to new users via user interfaces such as Excel are flowing to existing corporate mobile-workforce implementations. Specialized devices are now typically tapping into cellphone communications such as WiFi as well as PC connectivity, and therefore are beginning to share some of the smartphone and laptop features.<p>
However, the strong focus of the industry on the smartphone has left some major blind spots. Despite the fact that smartphones now have large amounts of storage available for data stores and "offline" apps, new features focus on "storing everything on the Web." It is a rare mobile worker who spends much time analyzing personal data such as contact lists when not operating on a corporate PC, or placing locally-stored customer feedback in the context of corporate data via an iPhone. Moreover, mass deployment of almost continuously connected laptops (that <i>do</i> have the ability to perform sophisticated analytics and combine personal and corporate data) via 4G is still probably a couple of years away — and 4G's 100Mbps "high mobility" speeds are probably a minimum for laptop BI effectiveness equivalent to that of the corporate PC.<p>
Moreover, the industry's sharp distinction between the smartphone and the laptop means that the focus in near-future smartphone and specialized-device products is on somehow providing more sophisticated operations on existing corporate database connections, while the focus in near-future laptop products is on keeping pace with PC technology rather than on becoming an alternative continuously connected form factor to the cellphone.<p>
A likely result is that over the next few years, none of the three mobile technologies will result in mass deployment of the optimal BI combination of continuous connectivity, personal data support, and ability to do ad-hoc analysis of personal, corporate and Web data.<p>
<h2>Mobile BI for Today That Boosts CRM</h2>
As I noted in the introduction to this piece, mobile BI is quite similar to, say, mobile <a href=http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/E/ERP.html>ERP</a> or mobile SFA (<a href=http://ecrmguide.webopedia.com/TERM/S/Sales_Force_Automation.html>sales force automation</a>); there are no major surprises in implementing yet another enterprise app on the existing corporate mobile infrastructure. And yet, considering that BI is not your typical enterprise app, it is surprising that BI does not yet spread more sophisticated analytics to the average mobile worker. To get full value from mobile BI, IT buyers should start figuring out how to do so. Vendors don't have shrink-wrapped solutions for you, so you will need to see what you can do until they finally come through.<p>
Here are a few counterintuitive suggestions:<p>
<ol><li>Make the target platform a more powerful netbook with 4G. As it is going to take some time for smartphone technology to catch up, and as some mobile workplace end users have taken to netbooks as a customer-facing mobile technology, implement a platform that will provide "good enough" until the smartphone can provide what you need.<p>
<li>Look for infrastructure software that includes local data management and application development — on the cellphone. It's time to dust off and take another look at solutions like Sybase's SQL Anywhere.<p>
<li>While trying to keep pace with mobile apps, keep an eye not so much on iPhone or iPad apps as on cloud mobile BI apps. These should provide a better combination of consumer attractiveness/ease-of-use and ability to customize for corporate needs. In other words, they should have done some of your work for you.</li></ol><p>
The key value-add from this effort is not so much lower device costs, new capabilities for a device that the worker already has, or faster decisions, although these do often follow from mobile BI in general, but more responsive, more personalized, more agile customer-facing <a href=http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/C/CRM.html>CRM</a> (customer relationship management). The most valuable customer relationships are those that are ongoing, and the best way to achieve ongoing customer relationships is full understanding of, and instant adaptability to, changing customer needs. Today's new mobile BI just gives you reports and alerts on your cellphone; full mobile BI potentially can let you understand, and change your product recommendations for, today's Web-savvy customer immediately. Isn't that worth the effort?<p>