One reader asked me why I did not mention Pentaho’s support of the iPhone since they were one of the first to support it. My distinction is that they didn’t have a purpose-built app. What Pentaho provided was extensions that allowed Pentaho’s BI Server to be accessed via the iPhone Safari browser. If I were talking about all vendors who have a web-based mobile BI strategy, there are others I would add to the list, such as Information Builders, Jaspersoft, perhaps IBM Cognos, (but as they have an app approach for Blackberry, I suspect the app approach for iPhone is just a matter of time).
So what’s the distinction or the big deal?
In the mid 90s, delivering BI via a browser was a major step for the industry toward making BI more accessible and scalable. Just as BI vendors had to rethink what capabilities they provide via a browser versus via a desktop app, so too will vendors have to rethink what they deliver via a smartphone app … or not.
Accessing BI content via a smartphone browser may offer some advantages in terms of full Web-BI capabilities and device support. But it poses a number of challenges including sub optimal screen rendering, slow response time for both functionality and data, inaccessibility when the signal is weak, and so on.
Purpose-built smartphone apps offer a number of advantages over browser-based smartphone access. Some of these include faster response time, device-based caching, optimal rendering for the correct screen size, leveraging of built in GPS capabilities, bar code reading, and so on. And while my preference is for the app approach, please note, this is strictly a matter of opinion. A similar architectural debate applies to production- style reporting, with certain vendors advocating browser-based BI authoring for all BI content, whereas others don’t. There are pros and cons in either philosophy.
The issue, of course, is what capabilities get put into the iPhone/iPad BI app and what gets left out (and which approach to take for which device!). The ability to design a new report on an iPhone may not be an oft-requested requirement, but users would certainly want view, sort, filter, refresh, and answer prompt capabilities. How about “send to” and “save locally” options? These are the design issues that vendors and customers alike face in deciding which way to deploy mobile BI … and when. I think of some of my colleagues who refuse to use, for example, the e-Trade iPhone app because it’s too limiting compared to the web-based version. Conversely, trying to use a smartphone browser for Facebook is painful compared to the app, on either the BlackBerry or the iPhone. In testing the few BI tools that have an iPad/iphone BI app, there certainly are differences in capabilities among all the vendors.
I welcome vendors and customers alike to share their opinions on what approach they prefer and why: smartphone browser or purpose-built smartphone app, and if the latter, what features are most important for mobile BI.
Thanks to Lon Amick for challenging my views on this!
Cindi Howson, BI Scorecard