by Tom Kaneshige

Emerging Tech: Business Intelligence Apps Go Mobile

Dec 21, 2010
Business IntelligenceData CenterMobile

What could your company do with a BI app on iPhones and iPads? Some analysts say this mobile software category will take off in 2011 - but early adopters are already gaining benefits.

CIO Joe Beery of Life Technologies has found an answer to the age-old question, “What has IT done for me lately?” Earlier this year, he gave top executives and a pilot group of sales folks and finance staff one of the hottest emerging technologies to arrive on the enterprise scene: mobile business intelligence.

Now, employees eagerly tap and scroll through business data looking at daily sales pipelines, recent activity among key customers, and real-time revenue trends on their iPhones and iPads. “It definitely helps your credibility,” says Beery at Life Technologies, a publicly traded biotech company based in southern California. “You want to know what we’ve done? Well, here it is.”

Beery chose a mobile BI solution called Roambi, a native iOS app with hooks into the company’s Oracle database and Cognos business intelligence system. Roambi serves up the latest product, customer or financial data via a simple yet elegant virtual card index. The app is as addictive as Facebook—one executive at Life Technologies checks Roambi at least 10 times a day—and thus employees are constantly reminded of the important role technology plays in their daily jobs.

“Before Roambi, our sales people were spending way too much time connecting with their laptops and keeping themselves up to date on what was happening with sales,” says Manoj Prasad, vice president of global applications testing and corporate functions at Life Technologies. With mobile BI, “we believe we’re shaving off anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes a day for a salesperson. They can focus more time on selling the product. We believe there’s a huge revenue impact.”

The Mobile BI Boom

With some 150 employees in a handful of business units currently using Roambi, Life Technologies stands at the front of a mobile BI boom. Early results of an ongoing Aberdeen Group survey show a very high level of interest in mobile BI. Roughly a third of respondents have a mobile BI initiative in place, while most others are looking to implement one in the next 12 months.

“Mobile BI is a little bit beyond the embryonic stage,” says Aberdeen analyst Andrew Borg. “It’s far enough along that there are some use cases that we can point to and concrete business value that can be measured.”

A mobile BI app has the potential to unleash the power of business intelligence throughout an organization. While many companies already have business intelligence systems, employees often lack a good way of accessing these systems. Too often, access is limited to desktops in the executive suite, says Borg.

In a recent Aberdeen survey of 277 companies with business intelligence systems, employee usage of these systems doubled with mobile BI. “Mobile BI is more interactive and enables us to access information when and where decisions are made, not just when we’re at our desks,” Borg says.

The surprisingly rapid rise of tablets like the iPad in the enterprise should also bode well for mobile BI. A tablet’s large screen provides a superior user experience to that of the smartphone and lets mobile BI users drill deeper into data. “Mobile BI is a killer app on the tablet,” Borg says. “They are made for each other.”

Big and small tech vendors are flocking to the mobile BI market with an array of offerings, such as SAP BusinessObjects Explorer that connects to SAP’s business intelligence system and Roambi ES3 for the enterprise that works only on iOS devices. Borg counts up to 30 mobile BI vendors with “really no dominant players.” He expects to see a lot of market consolidation next year, too—a sign of a hot emerging technology.

Mobile BI: All About the Presentation

There are two parts to a mobile BI solution: the front-end mobile interface and back-end integration with business intelligence systems. Both are equally important, and CIOs should weigh them carefully.

The mobile BI interface is either a native app or a browser-based one. As its name suggests, a browser-based app can run on multiple mobile and desktop platforms via a browser, although the user experience can be a bit generic and poor. Native apps, on the other hand, are optimized for a specific mobile platform, which, of course, means they lack support of a range of platforms.

Some mobile BI vendors provide both capabilities. Roambi, for instance, has native apps for the iPhone and iPad, as well as a browser-based app for desktops. Software developer MeLLmo, makers of Roambi, is currently looking into creating native apps on other mobile platforms, such as BlackBerry and Android.

In its most recent study, Aberdeen found that organizations intend to implement native mobile BI apps at a rate of over three times more than browser-based mobile BI apps in the next 12 months. Why? It all boils down to the user experience. Most browser-based apps today require an Internet connection and can’t leverage a mobile device’s local resources, such as caching and graphic acceleration, which makes them run slower than native apps.

Not only can a native mobile BI app use local resources, but also, it can often provide a much more pleasant user experience. Roambi, for instance, uses the iOS touch interface to display a virtual card index that allows users to flip through categories easily. “Navigating data through a virtual card index is a lot easier than logging into the native BI application through the Web browser,” says Life Technologies’ Beery.

CIOs should look for mobile BI offerings that take advantage of the gesture-based graphical user interfaces of today’s mobile devices, Borg says. “The more adapted a [mobile BI app] is to this new generation of devices, the more likely end users will adopt it.”


Mobile BI: Back End Integration and Security

Nevertheless, user experience is only one side of the mobile BI coin. A mobile BI app also has to query and pull data from business intelligence systems. It’s a complex task that requires a lot of digital wiring. “After the user experience, [integration] is the second most frequently mentioned question by customers and why they chose our solutions,” says Santiago Becerra, chairman of MeLLmo.

The problem is that a company tends to have multiple business intelligence systems, yet a business-intelligence vendor has a front-end mobile BI app only for its system. “We found that more than 60 percent of organizations have more than one BI system in place,” Borg says. “A mobile BI solution needs to interface with more than just one platform.”

Half of MeLLmo’s developers staff work on integrating business intelligence systems, such as Oracle, Cognos, Business Objects, Microsoft, Google, and (The other half are dedicated to the presentation side of the mobile app.) Roambi ES3 is an enterprise-class, on-premise mobile BI solution that ties into back-end systems and costs $795 per user with a minimum of 50 users. For smaller companies, Roambi Pro is a hosted version that costs $99 annually per user.

Another major concern among CIOs is the security of mobile BI. After all, you wouldn’t want critical business data to fall into the wrong hands. “If the mobile device is lost or stolen, the data on the device can expose the organization to millions of dollars of liability,” Borg says.

MeLLmo has taken a multi-pronged approach to security, says Becerra. Roambi’s data files are stored inside a customer’s business intelligence system. Request for reports to be sent to the mobile BI app require the proper credentials, and reports are encrypted before being transmitted. The mobile BI app itself has security features such as remote wipeout, device locking, among others, and works with dual SSL certificates. Lastly, Apple has built in security features inside iOS 4.

“We’re in 27 of the Fortune 500 companies,” Becerra says. “They all have the same security concerns.”

It’s critical that mobile BI is secure and can integrate with multiple systems on the back end, especially for a technology that will likely drive deeper into the enterprise. For instance, Life Technologies plans to roll out Roambi beyond the pilot stage to 1,500 sales people around the world, as well as other business functions such as human resources and global operations.

Roambi will have to pull data from an SAP system so that human resource managers can check employee profiles and productivity reports. Global operations will use Roambi to view real-time supply chain data over iPhones and now iPads. “We saw an almost immediate uptick in the utilization of the iPad when we started putting these kinds of tools on it,” Beery says.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at