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Solving the Mobile BI Puzzle: Which Environment?

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Given all the negative noise about the new Windows 8 user interface for desktops and tablets (and the less than stellar sales reports to date), it was astonishing to see the November 2012 survey from Dresner Advisory Services about current and future use of mobile devices to access business intelligence data and apps.

The Mobile Computing / Mobile Business Intelligence Market Study was conducted from September 5 to October 5, 2012. That was before the Surface tablet and the OS were officially released, but many senior executives had been briefed on the device and the new OS in that timeframe.

The survey and study include more than 250 respondents from around the world; roughly half from North America. Almost half of the respondents were IT professionals, while non IT executives and professionals from sales and marketing and other functions also were represented. The study panel included responses from a wide range of industries, with technology, consulting and financial services the three most frequently cited by survey respondents.

The typical respondent indicated his or her employer had implemented almost three different mobile device OS infrastructures by 2012. Apple smartphones and tablets was the clear winner, with more than half of the implementations to date.

But check out the data in the table below for those respondents whose organizations planned to implement a Windows OS for BI-related mobile device use within the next two years (I omitted the miniscule showing for RIM/Blackberry and Playbook and Firefox Mobile OS).

Almost 40% are seriously thinking about adding the Windows 8 tablet and/or smartphone to their IT infrastructures.

business intelligence, mobile

Source: Dresner Advisory Services

Howard Dresner, president and chief research officer of his company, says he was surprised by the strong showing by Microsoft’s new operating system. “I didn’t expect to see such dramatic plans for Surface at this point.” He is quick to caution that he doesn’t expect all of those respondents to actually implement the new Windows OS as part of their mobile BI infrastructure. “It won’t play out that way, but it suggests very strong interest.”

You can guess all the reasons why many IT pros are seriously considering implementing the Microsoft mobile OS, especially the higher end Surface running the ’86 architecture. According to early analyses:

• it will run the Office suite, so all those road warriors can continue to access spreadsheets, Word docs, presentations and other tools;

• Built in integration with SharePoint and other MS servers, even Hyper-V, will simplify the collaboration challenge;

• Microsoft’s server-based mobile device management tools (Active Directory) will connect with it, including the crucial security apps.

“Docs work the same on the higher end Surface model as on the laptop,” Dresner notes. “Most existing tablets don’t render them well. So for a business person, the keyboard in the cover is cool. It can be just like a laptop when they need it to be.”

When asked about any interest in the new Windows OS for mobile devices, BI veteran Nobby Akiha, senior vice president of marketing at Actuate, acknowledges that his CFO is an advocate. The chief reason is because he wants to keep using Excel while traveling without having to lug a laptop.

“He couldn’t travel just with an iPad and you can’t work on a spreadsheet on an Android device,” Akiha noted. He and others I consulted predicted that many IT shops will hedge their bets by closely monitoring Windows 8 for their mobile BI infrastructure, at least for the time being.

Native vs. Webapps

The rise of the new Windows OS is not the only mobile BI architectural shift noted in the Dresner survey and my discussions with industry executives. Apple’s iTunes app store has becoming the de facto distribution source for iOS smartphone and tablet apps, essentially customized native downloadable and resident applications.

And native apps also hold the most appeal for Android users as well. “For the most popular mobile platforms (iOS, Android) users still have a strong preference for native apps,” Dresner notes in his report.

Another perspective is that a hybrid approach – the advent of “blended” applications (native wrapper surrounding HTML5)– may become more popular over the next few years, especially in shops that want to embrace Windows. HTML5 is increasingly viewed as part of the solution for support of other devices, according to what I’m hearing and seeing.

“Most software vendors are looking at a middle ground,” avers Akiha of Actuate. “For the popular environments like iOS and Android, we’ll provide a native app framework that helps with the integration with that device and the operating environment.

“However, we will still present the meat of the content using HTML5,” Akiha adds. “HTML5 has come a long way and we have moved in that direction.”

The end user is the key, warns Dresner: “Users want a fully integrated experience.” The blended approach appears to provide the combination of user experience and IT flexibility.

Internal vs. External App Store

While the Apple’s and Google’s consumer app clouds dominate mobile application sourcing today, other platforms are growing. Mobile carriers and other third parties are attracting interest, and many large organizations are establishing their own internal app stores, according to the Dresner survey. Dresner predicts that app procurement may shift away from the consumer platforms in the future.

Akiha predicts Apple will address the B2B app storefront as the company becomes more enterprise friendly in a post-Steve Jobs environment. Furthermore, “we do see a lot of interest in enterprises developing mobile apps for internal use and companies don’t want them to be available in a public app store.”

The resolution of the questions about app store source, the IT infrastructure supporting mobile devices and whether to incorporate Windows 8 tablets will typically revolve around multiple approaches, depending on corporate culture and the installed base.

Last year the HTML5 vs. native app debate raged on but I see a relatively simple resolution:

• Organizations that are standardizing around the two leading mobile OSes will select the native app approach;

• If your organization is going to accommodate a broader array of mobile devices, then HTML5 will be the solution;

• Some shops will choose the hybrid approach based on company issues;

So as you are assaulted by the $1 billion Windows 8 marketing campaign, don’t be surprised or worried if you end up having to support the Surface and other tablets running the new Microsoft operating system.

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