Can the iPhone Do BI?

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Today's executives are on the move, and they need to be able to run their companies remotely. Mobile business intelligence (BI) applications allow them to access critical corporate data from their laptops, smart phones and PDAs. The iPhone promises to deliver information on an even more compact and versatile device. But can BI vendors make it work with the information executives depend on?

The answer is yes, but it's important to understand both the limitations and the architectural requirements of this amazing new platform. Let's take a step back and consider the iPhone's legacy, beginning with the iPod.

The iPod was successful because it creatively destroyed product boundaries, hastening the convergence of disk storage, high-resolution video screens, and music technologies. Apple changed our perceptions about mobile media, creating a newer, faster, sleeker type of product.

The iPhone is on a similar path of creative destruction -- this time, with the potential to replace phones, PDAs, and even the iPod itself. It's already a success in the consumer world. The major challenge facing Apple is to prove that the iPhone is viable for the business world.

That's where BI comes in.

As business people begin to use mobile phones and laptops almost interchangeably, and as those phones become capable of displaying rich web content, mobile workers are seeking more extensive access to corporate data. Apple embedded an advanced Safari browser in the iPhone to allow people to take advantage of the same web-based applications that they use on their desktops, eliminating the need for dual devices for many employees.

If you can write e-mail, watch movies, and browse the web on your phone, why not check your bills and bank statements as well? How about filing expense reports, your sales numbers, and verifying the status of an order?

These tantalizing scenarios open doors to an exciting range of possibilities, assuming your BI software can work properly in the elegant yet constrained iPhone environment.

There are currently two approaches to mobile BI deployments: thick-client and thin-client. Thick-client deployments run special software on each type of mobile device, fed by special servers that manage the interactions with those devices. The client-side software controls how content is displayed, which was an important factor in the early days of mobile browsers, when each device displayed content differently.

Most BI vendors offer thick-client solutions, with different client software for the different mobile devices. Their approaches work well for organizations that have standardized on a relatively small number of mobile devices. However, thick-client solutions won't work for the iPhone because it is a "locked" device. Apple does not allow developers to install applications on this platform -- both for security reasons and because the iPhone uses the Web as a delivery mechanism.

The iPhone only works with thin-client solutions that use standard Web technologies to deliver and display information. Thus to gain true analytic capabilities on the iPhone, you need self-contained BI applications with an active payload of data that can be delivered as part of a standard HTML page. These "active reports" can allow users to sort, filter, and query the associated data through parameterized reports. This gives them complete analytic capabilities, even when disconnected from the network.

Which brings us to content. Since the memory and processing power of these mobile devices cannot match that of a laptop, it is critical to deliver only the most relevant information. Users should be able to select what they need, then drill down to obtain precise results. When in disconnected mode, they can drill down into the data contained in the active reports. When connected to the network, they can select additional information from corporate databases.

But keep in mind, if the information is too difficult to read or the BI application is too difficult to use, nobody will bother with it. As my former CEO used to say, unless a report can fit in the palm of your hand, it is not worth reading. "Use a Post-it note as a template," she would say. In screen geometry, that translates to about seven rows of data by four or five columns of measures.

BI scorecards fit the bill perfectly.

The iPhone screen is larger than a Post-it note, which makes it an ideal candidate for a wide variety of scorecard reports, from operational summaries and sales results to inventory reports and account statements. Its advanced zoom function makes it perfect for dashboards, too -- as long as the individual dashboard components, when zoomed, fit into the Post-it template.

By leveraging the type of active reporting technology mentioned above, an "active dashboard" can pack a lot of information into a very small space -- once again, with an associated payload of data that enables users to display charts and tables using the zoom function of the browser. The Safari browser is perfect for this architecture, since it includes drop-down boxes that make it easy to interact with multiple pages of information.

Of course, security, usability and whatever legacy equipment you have on hand will all play significant roles in determining which mobile BI architecture to choose. But given the resiliency of the Web and the momentum of the iPhone, I'm betting on thin-client solutions that can work interchangeably in any web browser, on any device.

In the long run, as enterprise and mobile applications converge, users will demand consistency, from desktops to cell phones. That's why so many application vendors are betting on thin-client approaches to carry on the tradition of creative destruction. Astute BI vendors are doing the same.

About the Author

Dr. Rado Kotorov is a technical director of strategic product management at Information Builders Inc., responsible for emerging reporting, analytic and visualization technologies. Prior to joining Information Builders, he managed the implementation of BI solutions and decision-support systems, data warehouses, and custom applications. He has developed analytic models and applications for the pharmaceutical, retail, CPG, financial, and automotive industries. Rado Kotorov has a PhD in decision and game theory and economics from Bowling Green State University. He has publications on business processes, emerging technologies, CRM, KM, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

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