Mobile business intelligence (MoBI) is one of the emerging trends in business intelligence (BI) today. Though the concept of mobile computing has been around for at least a decade, MoBI picked up only recently. The shift from a wired world of connectivity to a wireless world of connectivity with the advantage of smart phones and handheld devices has lead to a new era of mobile computing, especially in the field of BI. From a BI perspective, the combination of real-time data integration techniques and the demand from mobile workforce for up to date information creates a necessity for MoBI.
Some industries are ahead of others in terms of their MoBI requirements. Retail, financial institutional, health care and manufacturing industries are willing to push the edge of mobile technologies and BI to give their mobile workforce access to critical data. Companies with a high number of mobile sales and service personnel are also embracing this technology.
Flavors of MoBI
The concept of MoBI is not new. It is as old as BI itself. The morphology of MoBI has evolved over the last couple of years, however. When we analyze the industry from the usage perspective or how interaction with the enterprise BI system happens via mobile devices, there are two types of MoBI: passive and active.
Passive MoBI has been around for quite a while, in the corner of a few key performance indicators (KPIs) and reports pushed into the users mobile devices. Basically, passive MoBI revolves around a push technique. When we look closely, passive MoBI can also be divided into two parts:
- Event-based alerts sent to mobile devices and
- Reports pushed to a mobile device after being refreshed.
Though passive MoBI was a step ahead from the wired world, it was not enough to support the just-in-time analytical requirements that the users run into. For example, a sales representative in the field who is able to look at the latest price offered for a service in a specific area will not be able to efficiently sort through information for different customers of similar kinds to arrive at a competitive price for the new customer he is meeting in golf course. Work around for that would be to have all similar reports in his device, which is cluttering of information without knowing the real-time need of the representative. Though passive MoBI does not help here completely, it will be helpful for users that need to receive just an alert when there is an exceptional event.
Active MoBI gives provisions for users to interact with the BI systems on-the-fly. Active MoBI often works as a combination of both push and pull techniques. An initial view of a report could be push and further analytical operations on the report could be pull to get any additional required information.
Users of MoBI
Users of mobile intelligence can be classified into four different categories:
- Executives. These users need to know a few high-risk KPIs at the right time, no matter where they are. A business case for this could be a sudden fall in sales or inventory levels brought to the attention of the respective director.
- Field workers. These users work in the field and need specific information at specific times. A sales representative, while finding an unexpected opportunity, can browse for required historic information, price negotiation, contract tenure, etc. to give immediate feed back to the customer.
- Business analysts. The users of this segment will need a few strategic KPIs in addition to static reports for analysis. The business cases could be minimal for business analysts, as their job will be mostly strategic. However, growing demand to be mobile in general provides a space for business analysts as users for MoBI.
- Clerical staff. The users of this segment will occasionally need reports while they are on the move. For this group, it is not critical to be users of MoBI. However, it can be a nice feature for them.
Passive MoBI only caters to clerical staff. Active MoBI is required for executives, field workers and business analysts. Future enterprises across different industries will need to have active MoBI to be competitive.
From a user perspective, MoBI will span three distinct usage models:
- Exception-based, in which workers receive alerts that fall outside predefined norms;
- Pushed information, such as reports or summaries of KPIs that are distributed to mobile workers on a scheduled or as-needed basis; and
- Pulled information, in which mobile workers specify the information they need via structured query or natural-language processing, and the information is delivered in the appropriate form to the users device.
The exception-based and pushed information belong to passive MoBI, and the pulled information belongs to active MoBI.
Before an enterprise decides to enable MoBI as part of the IT solution, a few factors need to be evaluated to ensure success:
- BI maturity. The enterprise needs to have a working BI solution in place. This can be evaluated by the data quality, number of active users, etc.
- Need for mobility. This can be measured by the strength of the mobile workforce and the criticality of on-the-field analytical/operational requirements.
- Cost of handsets. This might reduce the ROI of a MoBI solution if the user base is too large. In order to support a few specific standard operating systems and mobile clients, an enterprise may be forced to supply mobile devices to its employees that are MoBI users.
- Cost of mobile client. This might reduce the ROI of a MoBI solution, if the MoBI users are on varied types of mobile devices on different operating systems. It could impact when the user base needs a number of different mobile clients for the same application to work on different mobile devices.
- Cost of the solution and availability of sponsors.
ROI needs to be convincing on top of the previously described factors. Medium and large enterprises with a convincing ROI can target MoBI, based on the analytical and operational needs in the field. Passive MoBI could be less expensive for small enterprises.
MoBI can be client/server architecture with a high level of interactivity as shown in Figure 1. A mobile device communicates with an application server using a wireless network offered by mobile service provider via secured network. Users can work with data and applications both online and offline from application servers. Data components can be stored on mobile devices to allow users to work independently, despite connectivity and bandwidth issues. Content tailoring layers in MoBI architecture can be identified either on the server side or on the client side. Tailoring demands the content to be modified for the small screens of handheld devices. In the market, there are a few service providers that attempt a middleware type of content tailoring layer that can work on a screen at the server end and suit any small screen. This is more of an attempt to make the mobile clients light, so that the middleware takes care of massaging the contents to suit the screen. However, as of now, the market has witnessed only client-based content tailoring solutions.
Users can get live alerts on business-critical KPIs. Client-based applications have more access to the peripherals, allowing more elaborate functionality, storage access, multimedia display, etc. Some of the merits of this architecture are:
- Rich presentation made for mobile devices;
- Push strategy, key performance metrics or competitive intelligence pushed to end-user devices;
- Offline data storage and analysis for at least a minimal volume of data to work through connectivity and bandwidth issues; and
- Exception-based live alerts about events that fall outside predefined norms.
There are a few problems that need to be handled make MoBI more affordable in the future:
- Different mobile devices and mobile operating systems need different client software Software cost and software upgrade cost,
- Servers must account for multiple versions of clients and increasing complexity,
- Data synchronization and device management is required and
- Heavy memory requirements in mobile devices need to accommodate large Downloads
Some believe that leveraging the Internet on mobile devices using thin-client architecture is a workable solution to overcoming the demerits of mobile clients.1 Though this brings in the inherent advantages of thin-client architecture, there are some problems with this as well:
- Server and browser resolution may not match with the devices,
- Analysis cannot be progressed in offline mode and
- Extensive session management.
The primary focus in the market is for mobile clients to enable MoBI solutions on mobile devices.
Considerations for MoBI Solution
When using rich presentation layers for MoBI solutions reports should not be written separately for mobile devices. The MoBI client should take care of the content tailoring without demanding the reports to be authored in a different style or format to suit the small screens of the mobile devices. The user interface needs to me more convenient, because the screen size is small to retain the user for longer durations with the analytical work.
It is important to consider security because mobile devices are easy to access from laptops and computers. A stronger and powerful authentication is required. Even data stored within the device needs to be in an encrypted format so that it is not accessed if the mobile device is lost or misused. The authentication from mobile devices needs to be combined with enterprise authentication.
On a wireless network, normally it will take longer to download reports. So the data transmission needs to be in a compressed format to enable quicker transmission.
Wireless Network Factors
While we talk about MoBI solutions and see a few players in the market offering MoBI solutions there is a necessity to evaluate the wireless network factors, because it will tremendously influence the success of any MoBI solution.
- Usage of 2G networks. While these networks support data transfer, because they were primarily built for voice capabilities. Its only with 2.5G networks like general packet radio services and next generation 3G networks that data transfer capabilities mature. Bandwidth requirements for the application should be available.
- Nonavailability. Many areas in different countries still do not have access to wireless networks. Even within major cities, wireless connectivity suffers from problems of latency and attenuation. Users often experience the issue of lost connection that may hamper use of applications.
- Quality of service. Wired networks like the LAN provide a high quality of service, and this has evolved over time. These networks can be continuously monitored, and stable connections can be made available with a high degree of certainty. The same cannot be said for the wireless networks that are still evolving. Network operators are still struggling with quality of service parameter definitions and have not yet offered the same to customers.
From the application standpoint, there are a few factors that will decide the success of a MoBI application.
- Up-to-date information. Applications, such as stock trading applications, cannot be based on past stock prices. By their very nature, they need to work with current stock price data. Other applications may not require current data or data changes.
- Amount of information. The data requirements for applications vary in size. At times, it may not be easy to identify the data a particular user needs to carry out his work. Data requirements may vary based on the situation which cannot be predicted in advance. Additionally, any data requirement generalizations that are attempted may result in excessive amounts of data to be stored on the device.
Gartner reports reveal a heavy growth in smartphones and PDA market.2 Increasing necessity for the work force to be mobile with modern handheld devices should pave the path of success for MoBI. From an application standpoint, MoBI with near real-time data store will help the operational part of a business in addition to serving the strategic part.
Globally we see an increasing trend that the knowledge workers choose to have the liberty of mobility instead of being held in office. A virtual office may be a reality very soon. The last decade witnessed the growth of data warehouses, while the previous decade saw it as a luxury. MoBI will also become a critical component of IT architecture soon. Power of information is the mantra behind the success of winning enterprises. Because delayed information is like no information, by making business-critical information available on wireless handheld devices, BI has the potential to make intelligent businesses.
2. Gartner Says Worldwide Combined PDA and Smartphone Shipments Market Grew 57 Percent in the First Half of 2006. www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=496997. Gartner Research, October 9, 2006.
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