Some industry analysts (not I) were once predicting the death of pure-play BI vendors as a consequence of mega vendor consolidation in 2007. Yet Information Builders is thriving, with double-digit revenue growth, a loyal customer base, and continued innovation. Their customer list is something to brag about across multiple industries and sizes, from American Express to New York Police Department to Helzberg Diamonds.
At the annual Information Builders user conference, Summit, in Dallas, Texas, this week, President and Founder Gerry Cohen described the company’s goal in simple terms, “To continually deliver new technology and solutions to use your data to make smarter decisions.”
Cohen demonstrated new capabilities in its upcoming WebFOCUS 8 release that includes a more intuitive interface for business users, developers, and system administrators. All the modules will leverage the consistent Microsoft concept of ribbons, a design the vendor first introduced in its business query tool InfoAssist a few years ago.
Consistent with the buzz at many BI conferences in the last year, mobile made it to the main stage, but with a twist. As I wrote in the article, Managing the Mayhem of Mobile, Information Builders mostly relies on a WebApp for mobile BI. The WebApp automatically determines which device is being used to access dashboards and reports, then renders that content either in HTML5 for an iPad or in Flash for Blackberry Playbooks or Android Zoom tablets. The appeal for the WebApp approach is that reports don’t need to be rewritten for particular devices and more functionality. However, performance and usability is often inferior to native apps. Information Builders takes the novel approach of blending browser and app. They offeri a device-based app, called “Mobile Faves”, for the iPad and iPhone. With Mobile Faves, users can save their reports and dashboards locally to the device (security is still required against the WebFOCUS server); if they are saved as an Active Technologies report, then users can continue to filter, change the chart type, and add calculations all in off line mode. Native iPad gestures with touch, tap, and pinch are all supported. It’s the first I’ve seen a vendor blend both approaches of Web and device-specific app in a rather seamless way.
An updated Visual Discovery module (an OEM from Advizor Solutions) was also part of the keynote. Information Builders has sold this product for years, but with limited customer adoption. I suspect the recent buzz from specialty vendors Tableau, TIBCO Spotfire, and QlikTech has increased interest in this product as the hands on lab for this product was standing room only. The new version will integrate InfoAssist with the visualizations from Visual Discovery, moving what is now a developer- and desktop-centric design to a more business user, Web authoring work flow. While the product has a cool-factor and some compelling, interactive visualizations, the visual design process is not as intuitive and automatic as in either Tableau or Spotfire, or in the newer tools I’ve seen from MicroStrategy and IBM Cognos.
Although Information Builders is innovative, they could do a better job at communicating their innovations. For example, as I talk about in my cool BI classes and webinars at TDWI, the convergence of social networking with BI is certainly cool and promising in bringing decision makers together. It was only by chance, then, that I stumbled across Information Builders new integration with SalesForce Chatter and SAP Streamwork, due out this July.
One thing that Information Builders does not like to talk about, but that customers do, is the FOCUS language. It’s a differentiator that lets customers build robust reporting applications, bypassing some of the limitations of SQL that can hinder other BI tools. The vendor says too many industry analysts and competitors like to use FOCUS as a scare tactic suggesting their product requires coding; it doesn’t. But as one customer explained, “it’s nice that I have an option for reports with complicated logic.” In this regard, many of the reports built in WebFOCUS are not just reports, but instead, highly parameterized, interactive applications.
Attendees at the conference consistently praised this vendor for their customer service and partnership mentality. While one could argue that conference attendees will be skewed on the positive side, our successful BI survey and other industry surveys reflect a similar theme. (Be sure to take the 2011 Successful BI survey here to rate your BI vendor.) In fact, Information Builders is one of only three BI platform vendors that have consistently gotten the highest marks in both account management and support in our side-by-side Strategic BI Scorecard®.
A customer in the messaging industry described their newly launched extranet reporting and dashboard solution. If you are a banking customer, frequent flyer, or have school-aged children, chances are you’ve received a phone call or email from them in the last year warning of low funds, delayed flight, or snow closing. They are the SaaS engine behind a lot of banks, airlines, and schools to do outbound communication. They described how one of their applications saved a mail order prescription drug company millions of dollars a day in returned or damaged drugs by allowing customers to more precisely schedule delivery time.
One industry in which Information Builders has a strong toe-hold is in law enforcement. With some prebuilt data models and reports, they have been able to cite success in providing multiple police departments across the country insight into staffing levels and crime patterns. A few years ago, the Richmond Police department won awards from both TDWI and Gartner. The same police chief has now moved to Charlotte, NC, and started a similar BI initiative. Crystal Cody, Systems and Application Manager, described how all officers now have a virtual roll call in squad cars. “Before, if the officer came on a later shift, he might have missed an APB (all points bulletin) announcement from the morning. Now, officers have the same dashboard in all police cars.” WebFOCUS RSTAT was a differentiator in a competitive BI tool selection. WebFOCUS RSTAT (released in mid 2009) is a graphical user interface to the open source R statistical language. Predictive models built within RSTAT can be executed and embedded directly within a WebFOCUS report, pushing results of predictive models to the front line. Attendees were also buzzing about the presentation from the NYPD that reconstructed crime scene data, making BI as interesting as an episode of CSI.
Cindi Howson, BI Scorecard