Mobile BI – iOS as a help or hinderance

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the MicroStrategy BI Symposium in Amsterdam. The focus was heavily on pushing the iOS platform and utilizing mobile Phones and iPad’s to distribute BI content to users. There were some nice demonstrations of the MicroStrategy iPad application, but it got me thinking, are iOS devices really the most suitable devices for Mobile BI and perhaps more importantly, are companies really ready for mobile BI? I’ll cover the latter in a second blog post, but here are my thoughts on iOS.

Firstly, I must point out that this isn’t a blog aimed at Apple bashing. I am a gadget lover, I like Apple, I own Mac’s but I don’t hate Windows. I have an iPad, I have had iPhone’s but am currently using an Android device. I love technology and I think this is why some of the demo’s at yesterday symposium, along with my BI professional hat got me thinking.

1) There is only one button

Ok, so the iPad has 9.7” and screen you can navigate with touch screen buttons, but even just one or two more physical buttons would make the iPad more useable for the enterprise. Standard Android devices have four buttons. A home button, a menu button, a back button and a search button. Switching between an Android device and an iOS device, as I do frequently, really highlights to me the use of having a consistently placed back button. Even the iPad and the iPhone’s Safari browsers don’t agree on where the back button should be on the touch screen with the iPad opting for a top left placement and the iPhone a bottom left placement. This consistency is a very small detail, but it is something that Android developers never have to deal with as there is a hardware button to perform this function. It never moves and it is always in the same place. I also feel that an on-screen button in a data intensive and visually rich BI application takes up valuable screen real estate. This is especially the case for smaller devices such as the iPhone.

I also find accessing program settings in iOS could be made a lot easier. Often, a settings icon appears on the front screen of an App and meaning to access it again later, you have to navigate back to that screen. Occasionally, you will see a settings button on every screen of an App, but again, this is a waste of screen space. I know it does not take up much room, but here, I think that Android’s solution of a MENU button is more intuitive and ensures that settings are again consistently accessed through all applications.

Of course, the iPad does have other buttons. The Volume buttons. Re-purposing these for more meaningful use in Enterprise Applications could well be a solution, however, Apple is not so keen on this idea, recently rejecting the “VolumeSnap” camera application (http://taptaptap.com/blog/cameraplus-volumesnap-rejected/)

These may seem like minor gripes, and I guess they are, but in combination with my other concerns with Mobile BI, I think they are worth considering.

2) It’s not that easy to present with

The suggestion was that you could hand iPad’s around in the Board Room to look at financial figures and perform on the fly drill analysis. I think we are still in a period where Executives would rather have a print out or a projection to ensure that they are all looking at the same numbers. Passing one device around seems to me like a fairly strange way of presenting data. These BI applications are live and users are able to Interact with them. This is their strong point, but handing one device around means that the reports will change from user to users possibly confusing discussions.

A better solution is connecting it to a Projector, however, this requires an additional cable to convert the standard iOS device dock to a VGA cable. While this is hardly a massive expense, it is an inconvenience (and one more thing to lose), and presenting with an iPad attached to a cable that is attached to another cable is not, in my opinion, as straightforward or elegant as presenting from a laptop.

3) We still don’t have WiFi everywhere

On the last three assignments that I have been on, all for major financial institutions, there has been no WiFi coverage in the buildings. This would mean that presentations to the board would have to be done over 3G. Until WiFi penetration is increased, the iPad is not a viable, in-house BI delivery mechanism.

4) Apple Eco System

While Apple did provide a rather compelling presentation on their enterprise integration abilities and the tools that they can provide companies to secure and deploy only company approved applications, there are still a number of restrictions that make iOS somewhat restrictive. The need for Apple to approve a company through it’s “Apple Enterprise License” agreement is an unneccessery hoop to jump through and the reliance on iTunes is something that still bugs many people. It’s another technology that IT teams have to learn how to support and again, at this point, I would question the value of such investment.

5) FLASH FLASH FLASH

I know it’s a dying technology and I know it can be buggy, but, the fact of the matter is, that currently, it is being used in a lot of BI tools. MicroStarategy themselves use flash components as well as a number of other BI vendors as this enables rich data visualization possibilities, but the iPad can’t support this. The MicroStartegy solution is to create a separate app for BI, but really, why should we have to? Pervasive BI is aided by access anywhere web based reporting. If the iPad cannot support this without an additional app, then is it really such a fantastic solution? Access Anywhere means access Anywhere you have access to a Web Browser, not anywhere that you have an Web Browser or the relevant iOS App. The saying “There’s an App for that” is growing tired already. And don’t forget, if the App is over 20MB, you can’t download it over 3G

6) Expense

iOS devices are not cheap and at the moment, with the few niggling issues that I have identified, I would challenge the value in using iOS devices over and above conventional laptops for BI purposes. They look great and may well produce a “Wow factor” with clients, but this should not be a key driver in BI. Does “Wow” really give you a strategic advantage?

7) Apple always keep something Back

Some of the more compelling uses for Mobile BI demonstrated were in the logistics and Retail sectors. Incorporating Barcode Scanning technology with the iPhone camera and location aware capabilities via GPS was shown to provide a really nice way of making location and product specific reports on the fly. However, the iPad doesn’t yet have a camera, so it’s not possible to do this on the iPad so if you’re in retail or logistics, wait until the next generation of iPad’s come out.

All in all, I’m still not convinced that the iPad is the best device for mobile BI, but, at the moment, it is the only one and this speaks volumes. If none of the issues above matter to you and Mobile BI is the number one priority for your organization, then the iPad is your best bet. But bear in mind what I have said.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the penultimate speaker of the symposium, Egbert Dijkstra who said “The main thing that I do with my iPad is play Angry Birds”.

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