By Adi Azaria
To say that mobile devices are on the rise is somewhat trite. With 64 percent of American adults owning a smartphone and 42% owning a tablet computer as of 2014, we are already in the midst of the mobile era. At the same time, business intelligence and analytics software is also displaying continuous growth in the enterprise realm. In this state of affairs, it seems only natural for these two concurrent trends to converge.
And indeed, a quick market survey will reveal that any self-respecting business intelligence platform now includes a mobile BI offering, either in the form of a separate app or a mobile-friendly web interface. So is BI set to go mobile? Does mobile have the potential to replace the traditional desktop tools we have grown accustomed to using?
I don’t believe we’re quite there yet; while mobile BI is definitely more than just a nice-to-have, the personal computer will remain the ‘weapon of choice’ for data analytics, at least in the near term. The reason I see for this is the inherent limitations handheld devices currently suffer from, and the limited capabilities of these devices compared to their more powerful – albeit admittedly less slick and attractive – counterparts, desktop and laptop computers.
Consumers and Producers
I am talking about a much more prosaic problem with handheld devices: namely, that they are primarily designed for consuming content. Smartphones are great for reading articles, watching Youtube videos and playing Candy Crush Saga, and are a reasonable choice for firing off some quick emails. But writing a 10-page report on your phone is still an incredibly frustrating experience, because this is simply not what these devices were meant to do. To a lesser extent, this is also the case with tablets: while these come with bigger screens, the touch-screen functionality simply does not offer the same levels of flexibility and responsiveness as the old-fashioned mouse-and-keyboard combo.
The fact of the matter is that handheld devices are not currently being built to cater for content creators. They are still mainly being built and used as platforms to view and consume the content that is being created on personal computers.
Mobile BI: Looking Beyond Dashboards
So where does business intelligence fit into this? Is it more similar to passive or semi-passive content consumption, or is it more of an interactive affair? The answer is that both these facets play an important role in the full scope of BI, which essentially boils down to generating business value from data. This means giving users the ability to join different data sources, perform analysis on the data, visualize the results, and share them with a large number of people in the organization.
Of all these functions, mobile BI only really caters to the latter. For users who are mainly ‘dashboard consumers’, i.e., their main interest is to be able to keep track of processes within their organization through interactive dashboard reporting, mobile has distinct advantages. For these types of users, the ability to access their data on the go, during a meeting, or on an international flight, is indispensable. Since the level of interactivity these users typically require usually amounts to drill-downs and filtering, the mobile interface is more than adequate.
But data analytics is about more than just dashboard reporting. Someone needs to build these dashboards. Someone needs to deal with data preparation, finding the relevant data sources, consolidating them, integrating them, and applying the formulas and calculations that enable the above mentioned ‘consumers’ to effectively track relevant KPIs. All this requires a relatively high level of user interaction. It’s not that it cannot conceivably be done on a mobile device; it would simply be much. It would not be comfortable.
The current usage statistics for mobile BI (not many of which are available) seem to support the notion that the BI market is not showing signs of mobile domination. While a few years ago Gartner predicted that by now 50 percent of users will rely exclusively on mobile devices for insight delivery, reality has been somewhat less optimistic. In mid-2014, only 15 and 16 percent, respectively, of European and North American companies had adopted mobile BI, according to a BARC survey. Of these adopters, the majority were using mobile BI to display reports and dashboards. A survey by Howard Dresner has also found that the most important capabilities for mobile BI users include “viewing charts and reports and monitoring KPIs”. Another 2013 survey has actually found mobile BI adoption to be slowing down.
Mobile, or at least mobile-friendly business intelligence is definitely here to stay. But handheld or wearable devices, in their current form, cannot fully replace personal computers as the default devices used for analytics. For this to happen we would need to see some serious improvements to these devices’ usability as work tools. This won’t necessarily be the case in the long term (for example, advancements in voice recognition technology could solve some of the problems associated with the mobile interface) — but currently, tablets and smartphones are simply not the ideal tool for the job.
About the author: Adi Azaria is the Co-Founder and Chief Evangelist at Sisense. Azaria is a passionate entrepreneur, author, computer scientist and established thought leader. Adi has used his extensive experience to help the company triple its growth for four years in a row, as well as raise tens of millions of dollars in investment. Connect with him on LinkedIn.
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