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IPhone, need for features driving plans for mobile BI app development

Mobile applications for business intelligence is a gap that IT directors are charging their app development teams to fill as business intelligence and virtualization products bake.

The ever-increasing demand for anywhere access to business intelligence is spurring custom mobile application development -- despite the challenges of moving BI applications to mobile platforms.

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Developing your own mobile applications has its limitations -- even email and word processing apps still prove challenging for some mobile form factors. Any mobile device with a compatible browser can access regular Web-based BI reports, but it remains difficult, since rendering is not optimized for mobile devices. "Therefore, I hardly ever see anyone using this approach," said Boris Evelson, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Evelson said interest in mobile BI is increasing but remains something done mostly by high-level executives and sales staff.

Evelson also pointed out that it's possible to render BI applications to fit mobile devices and a server-based application can automatically render all BI reports in a mobile device form factor. And at a more sophisticated level, a client application can be installed on a mobile device to allow full interactivity and disconnected usage with no Wi-Fi.

The major business intelligence vendors have mobile BI offerings in place. Information Builders Inc. has WebFocus Mobile Favorites, which enables business intelligence reporting to be shared on any device with a mobile browser. IBM's Cognos 8 Go Mobile lets you use BlackBerry or Windows mobile devices to view BI reports and scorecards, as does MicroStrategy Mobile on a BlackBerry.

So why are companies like Ridley Inc. and Kroll Factual Data opting to instead develop their own mobile BI applications?

One factor could be that it's difficult for BI vendors to develop business intelligence applications for the iPhone, a popular road-warrior tool. "The design of the iPhone does not allow for local agents; it's totally proprietary," said Steve Brasen, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo. "You can't write an application that works within the OS of an iPhone."

Brasen said he believes Apple will have to change its policies and allow enterprise-level business tools to be developed for the iPhone, or "it will cost them dearly in the long run."

"You have the BlackBerry being adopted for business use because enterprises can create custom applications for the BlackBerry. It's a nightmare to build business applications for the iPhone," he said.

Loveland, Colo.-based Kroll Factual Data is taking a crack at it anyway. The company has standardized on the iPhone, but creating business analytic applications has not been easy, said Christopher Steffen, principal technical architect at Kroll Factual Data, a subsidiary of risk consultancy Kroll. As it stands, the company wants to take data from its SQL Servers, proprietary applications and a variety of other sources across the organization.

"It's a big undertaking, but in 2010 it's an absolutely critical project for us," Steffen said. "Texting and alerts are no longer enough for our people who are always on the road and have their PDAs glued to their hips. They want to see detailed reports, custom to them, that they can interact with."

More than 200 salespeople at Ridley Inc., a holding company for animal feed and nutrition companies, have a standard set of personal digital assistants (PDAs) from which to choose. The Windows-based PDAs allow them to see real-time information on what customers were charged the last time they were visited or if a recipe or formula for their particular feed has changed.

Texting and alerts are no longer enough for our people who are always on the road and have their PDAs glued to their hips. They want ... detailed reports, custom to them, that they can interact with.
Christopher Steffen
principal technical architectKroll Factual Data

"Every one of them is getting mobile access to our ERP system [Microsoft Dynamics AX] so they can answer questions because a high level of customer service can live and die with the level of functionality you give them on that handheld device," said Jeff Kadlec, IT director at Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Ridley.

The salespeople connect over a virtual private network to a Citrix server farm, which in turn connects to an ERP application that's viewed on a Web portal that the development team built. It's not a rich client experience, but it gets the job done.

Kadlec said he would like to be able to see more on a smaller screen, but the devices just aren't as robust as desktop or laptop computers. "We'd like to be able to view more trending information and have a drill-down BI capability, and we can't do that. We need better real-time capabilities. We have some now, but it takes too many inputs and fields to get to the information."

In general, mobile users are frustrated because unless their company standardizes on a single PDA, which is a difficult task in itself, IT has to build applications for several form factors. That takes time and money, so users have to queue up in the project line to get the features they want, or the features just don't work the same way on a handheld as they do on a rich client.

The first step is to decide on a few devices -- but that's a battle because most mobile devices come into a company through the back door, and application development is slow because one group wants the iPhone, another group the BlackBerry.

An answer could be on the horizon in the form of desktop virtualization. As such technology advances, it could eliminate the problem of having to choose a specific device since the technology promises to run on any device.

"It won't matter if it's a desktop, laptop or a PDA … that's the brass ring with desktop virtualization, but the vendors [VMware, Citrix and Microsoft] aren't as far along as you think," Brasen said. "There are still problems such as different interfaces and form factors, but the vendors are taking these challenges very seriously."


Let us know what you think about the story; email: Christina Torode, Senior News Writer

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