Mobile Business Intelligence Gains Traction

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After a tepid response a few years ago, mobile BI products now appear ready for prime time as larger companies look forward to benefiting from their implementation.

 

In the march toward smaller, lighter, and more portable mobile devices, are we taking more with us or leaving more behind?

 

The answer could be, "a little bit of both" as the mobile hardware manufacturers lurch ahead of the software providers, who scramble to catch up. Meanwhile, both experiment with new products while the majority of us wait for the build-out of faster wireless cellular networks capable of handling video.

 

The recent explosion in sales of the second version of Apple's iPod tells you where the future is, however: If you haven't guessed it already, it's wireless. Consumers are primed to accept--and pay for--the convergence of everything having to do with communications onto something they can carry on their belt.

 

Savvy IT administrators realize they can't trail too far behind the consumer acceptance curve when it comes to providing for their business users, but there are concerns. Apart from the money to support wireless delivery solutions of business information, there are issues of staff support to provide the information on a multitude of form factors. The biggest concern, however, was, is, and always will be security, an issue that affects everyone-from the smallest mom and pop shop all the way to government and the White House. If we don't understand how to keep even email secure, then why would we be sending out reams of sensitive corporate or government data in reports formatted for mobile devices?

 

One of the reasons the BlackBerry has become the de facto standard in the U.S. for mobile business devices is because the company understands security and has built into its devices a number of capabilities that let IT administrators sleep at night. Besides BlackBerry, others, including Nokia, which uses the Symbian operating system, are on top of security issues, employing what is called remote shut-down and wiping. If a device, be it BlackBerry or Windows Mobile, is reported lost or stolen, a system administrator can send a remote "kill" command to the device to erase all data stored on it (and in memory) and disable it from future use. If the device isn't capable of being remotely killed, then it isn't suitable for business purposes.

 

While the emphasis that device manufacturers and solutions providers have placed on consumer devices has been on convenience, speed, incorporation of phone service, and access to the Internet, the emphasis on business devices has been less on phone access and more on security. Administrators are aware that only one level of security is probably not enough when sending sensitive data around on a cellular network.

 

Several recent announcements by large enterprises that intend to use mobile devices for accessing and disseminating business intelligence to executives and their mobile work force suggest that the security issues have now been overcome and it's safe to deploy business intelligence on mobile devices.

 

In one such announcement, Hess Corporation, a global integrated energy company engaged in the exploration, production, and sale of oil and natural gas, revealed that it had signed up to use IBM Cognos' Go! Mobile solution as part of its purchase of the IBM Cognos 8 business intelligence application. Hess says that "corporate executives, as well as regional and district managers, will be able to use their wireless handheld devices to read and securely interact with corporate performance information and make informed decisions regardless of their location or time."

 

Hess went with IBM Cognos 8 after doing its homework. An "extensive review of competitive offerings" preceded its decision, according to the company. Hess liked the "complete spectrum of business intelligence functionality on a single platform." Finance managers and business analysts, for instance, will use the software to analyze performance trends and to model future growth. Hess will use the business intelligence software to support its chain of more than 1,300 gasoline stations and convenience stores.

 

It's likely the availability of IBM Cognos 8 Go! Mobile was not the main reason the company went with an IBM Cognos 8 solution, but neither was it forced to opt for Go! Mobile, sold as a separate add-on.

 

Jane Farquhar, IBM Cognos 8 Go! Mobile product marketing manager, says she knows why Hess--and several other large companies recently--have been intrigued enough with Go! Mobile to integrate it into their IT infrastructure. The product has overlapping and robust security features, it's easy for IT to deploy, it doesn't require different versions of a report for viewing on a mobile device--you author once, consume anywhere--and it allows executives and mobile workers to make decisions with up-to-date, accurate information, regardless of where they might be at the time. This results in faster--and better--decisions. What's not to like?

 

"We like to call it BI on the belt," Farquhar tells MC Press Online. "We like to have that full desktop functionality anywhere you are. The more the work force becomes mobile, the more that people expect that functionality wherever they are."

 

Go! Mobile was launched in February 2007 on the BlackBerry platform. By December 2007, the company had expanded its support to Symbian and Windows Mobile. Farquhar says the company is closely watching whether other mobile platforms, particularly the Apple iPhone, will gain traction in the corporate environment, but so far, businesses are sticking with the aforementioned top three.

 

"We're certainly monitoring the market," says Farquhar. "The iPhone is one we're hearing a lot of buzz about, and we'll continue to watch that and take action as we see the iPhone kind of break into the enterprise market."

 

Farquhar says that a number of companies have adopted the "mixed platform" approach in which company policy is that IT will support whatever platform the employees want--providing, of course, it's one of the big three: BlackBerry, Symbian, or Windows Mobile.

 

Farquhar says IBM Cognos developers worked closely with the Research In Motion (RIM) BlackBerry team in developing the security for Go! Mobile. It's a hand-in-glove solution that allows an administrator to wipe clean the mobile device should it become lost, including information in memory. The only condition, of course, is that the device must be turned on and within range of the network. If the person in possession of the device is smart enough to turn it off, however, there still are safeguards to protect access to the data.

 

There are the usual password protections so that only an authenticated user can access the device. If a device is dormant for awhile, it locks up. Entering an incorrect password a few times results in lockup even for the correct password. There also are robust features built into IBM Cognos 8 that restrict users, depending on their permission and authority levels, to only the information they can access on their desktop.

 

A feature that is unique to IBM Cognos is what the company calls "lease key" technology. Reports are set to expire after a preset period, much the same way an electronic hotel key won't work after the guest checks out. Accessibility windows can be set for periods measured in mere hours.

 

Asked whether a screen the size of that offered on most mobile devices actually presented enough real estate to display the kind of information most business intelligence users would need, Farquhar replied that Go! Mobile developers spent a lot of time working out how to display information on the smaller screens.

 

"You absolutely can read everything," says Farquhar. "Obviously, it's going to be shrunk down to fit the form factor. Each one of the items on a dashboard, for instance, would be selectable, and there is actually some interactivity within the chart on the dashboard. There are tool tips that fly out that will allow you to see exactly what it is that you're hovering around."

 

Traditional business intelligence delivered on a mobile device would most likely have been delivered by email, probably either as a spreadsheet or a PDF. Neither is particularly suited to a small form factor. Often the files are too large and are limited in terms of their interactivity. With Go! Mobile, you can access everything on your handheld device that you can get on your desktop.

 

While IBM Cognos was among the first companies in this recent wave of mobile BI products to offer a complete mobile business intelligence solution, it has a number of competitors. Other companies that had previously introduced incomplete or unpopular solutions a few years back have since updated them. Users investigating mobile business intelligence solutions will want to look at offerings from Information Builders (and its WebFOCUS Active Reports, which supports the Opera Mobile Browser), SAP's Business Objects (with its MoBI product), Webalo Mobile Dashboard and its patented Webalo User Proxy (which allows for rapid and flexible deployment of applications to mobile users), Qualcomm Inc.'s Firethorn Holdings LLC, Sybase, and Microsoft, which offers a mobile edition of SQL Server.

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