Recently we have seen a dramatic change when it comes to deciding which screen size to design a new report or dashboard for. It’s always been a struggle for BI app designers to optimize applications to fit to the different sizes of desktop PCs and laptops, but adding mobile devices like smartphones and tablet PCs to the mix makes it even more complex.
The most natural solution of the past was to design two different views – one for the desktop and one for mobile deployment. But we no longer recommend this approach as the lines between different device categories are blurring.
Netbooks are encroaching on notebook and iPad territory, coming closer to their display capabilities. iPad has initiated a storm of new devices from other vendors with similar screen size. Even worse (from an app design point of view), Internet giant Amazon.com launched its Kindle Fire, whose screen size sits between traditional smartphones and tablet PCs. And now new devices like the Galaxy Note and the Galaxy III by Samsung, whose screen sizes are between the iPhone and the Kindle Fire, have found their own fans.
Although size does matter, screen size is not the sole point to consider when designing BI apps. There’s orientation to consider – which devices are optimized for portrait or landscape orientation – and on top of this, different vendors also offer a wide variety of pixel density – defined by pixels per Inch (PPI). For example, the new iPhone 4S with its Retina Display is able to display more pixels on its 3.5″ display than a decent netbook.
For app designers, it is impossible to create separate reports for every device, especially at organizations where BYOD (bring your own device) is the standard. This would end up being a total nightmare from a maintenance point of view. So what can we do? It’s time for a new and intelligent approach that will allow us to use one app and one report or dashboard layout for all devices.
Who really benefits from mobile BI?
There’s no denying the cool factor of whipping out your iPad to show your client a demo when you’re out for coffee. And there’s no doubt that mobile devices also come in handy for managers who need to check KPIs and track expenses en route to their next meeting. A recent article by the Gartner Research Group acknowledges the growing prevalence of mobile BI in the corporate world, stating that by 2013, 33% of BI functionality will be consumed via handheld devices (Predicts 2011: New Relationships Will Change BI and Analytics). But when devising a mobile BI strategy for your company, consider this: will your users see real value from being able to take action on business data 24/7 or are you just providing a nice toy for individuals who can efficiently do their work behind a desk?
In all likelihood, your accounting manager and research analyst, who spend 95% of their working time behind a desk, do not need mobile BI. The task of a research analyst, for instance, may include reviewing large amounts of data and using data management techniques to analyze and report on results. A job like this requires a decent size monitor (maybe 2!) and a powerful computer with a good amount of RAM. The daily tasks of our researcher do not translate well to a mobile device; a tablet would just be a business toy for him or her. So in the interest of minimizing upfront expenses for company-wide mobile BI deployment, consider the way that people work and realize that mobile BI may not be necessary for every member of your staff.
As the term implies, mobile BI is most useful for folks who are, well, mobile: executives traveling to meetings, sales managers visiting clients, or production managers who need to review and update data while on the plant floor. These users will get the most value from mobile BI because the tasks they’ll be using it for are quick (like reviewing a client’s purchases last year on the way to a meeting with them) and likely time-sensitive. These are ideal tasks for mobile BI. Why?
Organizations cannot appl(e)aud a vendor lock-in
Now that modern mobile devices (e.g. smartphones, table PCs) have made great strides in their rich user interfaces and people are accustomed to using them in daily life, they’re becoming ubiquitous in the workplace as well. Checking email and synching calendars to mobile devices are common tasks for business people, many of whom are hungry for richer business applications – like mobile BI apps that allow them to interact with their performance information anywhere, anytime. Mobile BI is on the top list of projects for decision support at organizations around the world, and managers are eagerly looking at solutions currently on the market and learning that they’re one of two breeds: native apps or Web apps. Which one is the future of mobile BI?
Native apps are applications that are device-specific – that is, they are platform and hardware dependent. They became necessary when Apple launched the iPhone and forced all developers to create applications specific to the device to be sold on its App Store. Since 2007, developers have created hundreds of thousands of native apps for iPhone that have been downloaded billions of times. But all of these apps need to run through the evaluation process of a single company for a single device category.
Although the iPhone has made some strides into the corporate world – managers do love these gadgets for their stylishness, ease of use, and the device-specific applications themselves – competition isn’t standing still. Many BI vendors have developed native apps to run on iPhones and iPads or have at least provided a front-end interpreter to handle BI presentation layers. But at what cost? Is it worth it for these vendors to put their focus on a single platform when there is an alternative? Does the small bit of increased functionality in a native app justify the decision to go that direction?
A recent Gartner report shows that Android will be the leading platform for mobile devices at the end of 2011 and that Microsoft, with their Nokia partnership in place, is expected to gain back a decent market share. Neither Google nor Microsoft are betting on a “walled garden” approach, but instead heavily promote Web apps.
So what makes Web apps different than native apps?
In a previous post on mobile BI, we looked at how tablet PCs have changed the way we access our data and the convenience and flexibility they offer to executives and field personnel. Tablets are becoming the primary deployment platform for business intelligence at many organizations due to their ease of use, their popularity among the executive set, and the perceived boost they give to productivity of on-the-go workers. Thanks to tablet PCs, you’re not restricted to hauling a laptop to meetings – you can simply slide out your lightweight tablet, take notes via touch screen technology, and zoom in and out of graphs to focus on pertinent information.
Imagine this: you’re meeting a client for lunch at a local coffee shop and you’ve planned for this to be a very informal yet productive sit-down. Not only does your tablet PC give the client the impression that you’re up-to-date with the latest technology, but it also provides hands-on experience when you allow them to explore data that’s important to them on your device. And just like that, your iPad transforms into a demo tool for your client. It allows you to share information in a more hands-on way than you otherwise could.
According to a November 2010 CIO Magazine survey, IT leaders are considering ease of use first when making mobile purchase decisions – followed by support, services, reliability and security. For many people, having a larger screen with touch capability is easier to use than a tiny smartphone screen or Blackberry trackball, so there’s one advantage right there. Zooming in and out of BI dashboards on an LED-backlit screen blows your smartphone screen out of the water.
But is there a price to pay for the ease of use and freedom you get from deploying mobile BI on tablet PCs?