Will the iPad take BI to a new dimension?

Musings of a gadget tyro

By Alys Woodward, IDC Insights Community

I have a confession: I am not a gadget person. As a software analyst who is not into gadgets, I'm probably in a minority of one -- but diversity is good, right?

Of course I have to use something device-wise at work, but I am fiercely loyal to my "retro" Nokia E51. When tweeting on it recently (out of desperation -- laptop issues) I was quite impressed at how usable the mobile internet is. I also recently acquired a 2-year-old Blackberry from a friend (to keep up with the 20-something mums at my daughter's school). That's as mobile as I get.

Consequently, the hype around iPhones and iPads has left me somewhat cold. Sure, I'm happy to use anything that work provides, but paying a significant amount for a gadget is not my priority. I also lack the motivation to learn how to work something new - and "thumb gestures" are very new. I'm still struggling with the ball on my veteran Blackberry. (Plus, I heard an awful story from a nice young man at IBM who had to have drastic surgery on both elbows, all because of too much Blackberry use.)

So, which is right with regard to iPad business intelligence (BI) -- my cynical perspective or the enthusiasm of the BI vendors? Most of the major vendors have an iPad version (note: the iPad version usually works on the iPhone too), however they have a broad range of approaches to demonstrating and marketing their iPad BI applications.

I have reviewed these approaches below:

  1. The casual approach. Oracle's launch of OBIEE 11g in London in August included a demo that took place on both a PC and an iPad, and showed updates on the PC passing to the iPad. SAP did something similar at SAPPHIRE in May with arguably a bit more fanfare. In both cases, the iPad demo was part of a general demo of the BI platform.
  2. The obsessive approach. MicroStrategy at its EMEA event at Cannes in July stated that the iPad is the way forward for their whole organization. Founder and CEO Michael Saylor described his view of the iPad as a potential laptop replacement, and disclosed his intention to turn the whole company over to the iPad (MicroStrategy has 1900 employees worldwide). MicroStrategy has been active in mobile for a while; MicroStrategy Mobile is a separate toolset that works as an add-on to the main BI platform and is charged for separately; there are 550 customers using the Blackberry version.
  3. The customer-led approach. TIBCO Spotfire just announced that the latest release of its web-based reporting tool (TIBCO Spotfire Web Player 3.2.1), includes reports and analyses that can be run on an iPad or iPhone (there is no extra charge for the functionality). The vendor did this in order to respond to customer requests; they already have some customers, including a handful in Europe, using it. Interestingly, TIBCO Spotfire does not have a Blackberry or Android version, as its value proposition is around visualization and interactivity rather than one of the classic mobile BI use cases.

Thus we see that the vendors' opinions vary between iPad BI as a nice tool with which to look at information, and a potential replacement for the laptop. Quite a broad range of opinion. So, I need to find a balance between the market hype and my own native cynicism. Could an iPad really take BI somewhere it has never been before? Well, there are three major reasons that this could actually happen.

  1. Improved interactivity. A touch screen lends itself to more types of navigation. The more flexible the navigation, the more interactive the information becomes. To paraphrase Michael Saylor, the iPad could be the device that turns BI from "get me the information" to "I'll get the information myself (as long as I can do this on my iPad)". The more people in an organization that are getting their own information, the more the use of information for decision-making will evolve in that organization, as users become more accustomed to the data they have and how they can use it. Answering one question with interactive data often leads to users seeing another question they want to ask, and hence navigating through the information -- providing the navigation is easy enough to do. This is in contrast to the type of BI landscape where other people provide management with a printed report or even a static online report; this is a good starting point, but does not drive improvements in the use of information.
  2. A smaller device that people can pass around. It was impossible to pass a desktop PC around, but now laptops are ubiquitous they still aren't easy to hand back and forth for people to do joint explorations. This feature of the tablet device could make a big difference.
  3. It will help explain the business benefits of BI to execs. It has always been the case that executive involvement is crucial in order to get BI projects moving. Explaining the potential benefits of BI is therefore key. The better the demo, the more the exec sees the value.

Will these factors drive BI adoption and success? IDC's white paper on Pervasive BI identified 5 factors that organizations can affect to improve their use of information and the value they gain from it. The first factor is the degree of training, specifically the degree of user satisfaction with the training that users receive on both the tools and the data. The easier the tools are to use and the data is to understand, the more pervasive the BI is likely to be. An iPad can't help with the data, but it can certainly help with the tool.

However, the other four factors (see the IDC Pervasive BI white paper) are not particularly helped by iPads. One factor is the involvement of non-executive management, which is key to drive success from BI once the system is implemented. This is because such managers typically drive ongoing use of the BI system, making sure business changes are reflected in the system, and ensuring users move towards fact-based decision-making and thus advance towards an analytic culture. I don't particularly expect that non-executive management will be issued iPads in many companies (at least outside MicroStrategy) for a while. Thus, the iPad will help BI get started in the organization, rather than helping it improve pervasiveness on an ongoing basis.

I have yet to consider to what extent the iPad will be adopted for enterprise use, and will be consulting with IDC colleagues on the mobile side about that. Other vendors are entering the touch screen tablet market, and Apple's "cool gadget" branding may work against it in the current times of cost cutting and spending restrictions. Distribution of applications is also important -- accessing applications via the browser (TIBCO Spotfire's strategy) is typical for enterprise BI users, whereas iPad users expect to buy from the Apple store. Will the pull of the iPad be strong enough for enterprises to change how they buy software, as well as hardware?

I happened to be at a networking event with two young male tech journalists in September, and one of them said he felt "sorry" for Apple owners, thinking them victims of overhyping. (I then brandished my retro Nokia -- a retro Nokia being the polar opposite of an iPhone -- but it didn't impress them as I had hoped. You still need a cool phone to be cool, apparently.) In the meantime I will keep practicing on my old Blackberry (the ball doesn't move left) and wait for touch screen BI to take off.

What do you think? Will the iPad make a big difference? Is it likely to help BI get started? Within or beyond the exec team? Would a good iPad app affect your buying decisions? Do your users want to use cool devices, or do they lack the time to learn how to use them?

If I get over 50 comments, I'll go and buy a Blackberry Curve.


Alys Woodward is program manager for BI and analytics at IDC.

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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