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 Without Mobile, There Ain’t No Real-time Enterprise

– Eric Lai, ZDNet

What a perfect way to sum up what’s ahead for 2011…

The potential for customers finally making good on the promise of a real-time enterprise is ripe for the picking… but be wary. There are some major pitfalls to avoid, like trying to shoehorn desktop applications onto your smartphones. And CYA – Cover Your App. We anticipate an app backlash in the enterprise sometime this year.

As we kick off 2011, here’s what’s on our minds: changes in the market, trends to keep an eye on, and of course, some words of caution to help ensure you’re well prepared as you tackle the promises of the “real-time enterprise.”

1. Cramming Software onto Mobile Devices Is a Bad Idea

Too often our customers ask us to help them take an existing desktop application or display and show it on their Blackberry, iPhone or Android device. Here’s a case that challenges the adage of “The Customer Is Always Right.”

I’ll go on record once again to say: shoving software built for platform X onto mobile platform Y is a bad idea, and not just because it has a small screen.

There is a great distinction between mobilizing an application and mobilizing data. Visual KPI does not mobilize an existing application. Instead, we focus on “why” we are mobile and “what” information is useful and appropriate to have with you at all times.

Great mobile applications: SMS, email, Twitter, Facebook, news, weather, traffic, directions, sports scores.
Poor mobile applications: word processing, graphic design, data mining, HR, etc.

So, what do the great ones have in common? In a word, “context.”

  • Here and Now – You need directions now. You Tweet what has just happened. You share photos you just took. You respond to emails that just arrived.
  • Small and tangible – They focus on information you can digest quickly (because you shouldn’t be staring at your phone for hours, right?). Tweets, posts, photos, temperatures, headlines, etc.
  • Perishable – They are all better when they are with you and fairly useless later. Breaking news isn’t breaking if you have to wait until you get home.

Why should your mobile enterprise data be any different? Shove that detailed data mining or analytics app onto phones and watch how many people use it (aside from the team that built it, and even then it won’t last long). So what are the characteristics that make ideal mobile business data? It’s the same as above, with different examples:

Here and Now – in the enterprise, this usually means operations. Are the trains running on time? Is the plant operational? Are our servers down? Is our e-commerce site taking orders? The focus here is on data that a) is critical to running the business today, b) changes fast enough for you to want to look at it (that weekly or monthly report shouldn’t be your target), and c) can alert you to situations that require rapid decisions.

Small and tangible – This is why cramming an analytics or desktop dashboard onto a phone doesn’t work. You must choose your KPIs wisely and don’t include them all. Twitter only allows 140 characters and is wildly successful on mobile devices for a reason. Focus on a few key screens, trends, visual cues and make sure it includes alerts. Less is more, more than ever.

Perishable – Focus on the things a mobile user can affect as soon as they see them. If it takes 50 people and multiple systems to spot a problem and act on it, you probably have someone hovering over it back at the office already. Focus on things that empower users to act right now.

Oh, and yes you will still have too much to fit on a small screen. We spent years refining this and I guess you could say we still are. 

2. Mobile BI Identity Crisis

Compared to a year ago, mobile business intelligence (BI) is finally on the radar of a much larger population. We’re starting to see distinctions made from one vendor to the next based on functionality: dashboards vs. reporting vs. monitoring vs. analytics vs. comprehensive BI on a mobile phone vs. pretty screens with little substance.

2011 needs to be the year when the nuances and this subtle segmentation finally come to light in a way that helps customers can make informed decisions to meet their needs. We know what we do and what we fight against, but in many cases even we still don’t know what to call it. If you are a customer it’s even worse because you have to wade through the jargon. So, what is Visual KPI? Well, our customers use it to monitor their operational assets, do lightweight analytics with the data, rapid prototype KPIs and their organization, and show off cool data to their bosses. See what I mean – what do you call that? I guess we’d call it mobile monitoring and BI (although those last two letters scare me a bit – big topic).

Understandably, a lot of companies have trouble translating their needs from wondering what they can do… to wondering what they will do… to actually doing it. If you’re somewhere along that continuum, be sure to talk to real customers of mobile BI solutions – cut through the marketing lingo to get straight to the actual uses, functionality and value. We’ve always leaned heavily on our customers as the best resources for talking about Visual KPI (thank you!) and you should too. 

3. The iPad is Cool… But Still Not Proven in the Enterprise

The iPad certainly made a splash in 2010, but it remains a rogue for now. While Visual KPI is of course supported on the iPad and other tablets, the form factor is just not industrial yet. Our customers’ device of choice remains the smartphone: for the most part, iPhones tend to be the executive “toy,” while managers rely most on the Blackberry. With that said, though, the iPhone is gaining IT and business credibility and we’re already seeing some users (like in the pharmaceutical industry) asking for new ways to visualize operational data on the iPhone and larger screens like the iPad.

The Android onslaught is also imminent and poised to challenge Blackberry. The constant we see here is continued change and innovation, which for us is a great validation of our “leverage the browser” strategy. We’ll continue to innovate ahead of the market, but also at a pace that makes sense for our customers’ adoption of mobile devices. Ultimately, our goal is to stay ahead of mobile technology so that our customers don’t’ have to. 

4. App Backlash

Everyone loves their consumer apps. Shazam, Kindle, and the Zippo Lighter come to mind. But in the business world, this proliferation of apps is going to turn into a management nightmare. What was borne out in the consumer world (where we’re all our own IT department) won’t fly with enterprise IT. Combine it with all of the new devices and platforms and it should scare you. As a result, we’re going to see business users move away from apps and surge towards HTML-supported platforms. Specifically, HTML5’s arrival can’t come soon enough.

This huge, positive wave of HTML5 front-ends will be complemented by large-scale data warehouses, data historians and analytics on the back-end. After all, today’s smartphones are emerging as high-bandwidth supercomputers with always-on connectivity that can support analytics at our fingertips like we’ve never had before. With web-based applications, users get the nirvana of mobile decision support: the ability to manipulate dynamic, real-time data with an intelligent display of results in context. You also get improved security with much less information stored on devices and the ability to share links instead of data. 

5. Return on Existing Investment (ROEI)

Yes, we’ve both heard it before. Everyone loves ROI, but if you can deliver ROEI – return on existing investments – then you’re really a hero! Especially as the economy remains less than vibrant, this is going to be a continuing theme in 2011 and over the next several years. How can you add value to what you’ve already paid millions of dollars for? Remember that ERP project and associated data warehouse that took years to implement? If a vendor comes in and asks you to build a new “big” thing to manage and maintain you’ll probably give them the finger. We would.

ROEI has always been a core tenant for Visual KPI and that will continue going forward. To be honest, it makes our lives just as easy as it makes yours. As one of our customers recently shared… “We’re cheap. We don’t want to part with a buck unless we get ROI. All we’re doing [with Visual KPI] is leveraging the investment we’ve already made in a [data historian.]” 2011 may be the year to put the best parts of your existing systems in your pocket. We hope so.

We have an exciting 2011 ahead and we wish everyone a great year!

Robert Hylton

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