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Mobile BI and the Coming Enterprise App Backlash

by Robert Hylton, Owner/Partner, TransparaTuesday, June 21, 2011

A Serbo-Croatian translation of this article can be found here

Mobile dashboards and BI are among the hottest topics in the industry and justifiably so: mobile access to data is a critical tool for decision making. But as the number of companies evaluating and deploying BI for their mobile devices continues to explode, the debate of app vs. browser is heating up.

The popularity of mobile apps and app marketplaces like the iTunes App Store and Android Marketplace have developers swooning and consumers in a frenzy for the latest download.  On the business side, especially medium to large enterprises, there is demand from users but storm clouds are brewing for those who have to manage devices, users, applications, and most importantly security.  Mobile dashboards and BI are quickly becoming one of the first technologies to get caught in this crossfire.

There are two schools of thought and choice when it comes to mobile BI:

  • Dedicated apps that are installed on each device; and
  • Server-based apps that deliver screens to the browser on each device.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.  Common wisdom would say that dedicated applications are faster, can work offline and have sexier graphics.  Fortunately that is no longer true as technology has closed that gap… and quickly.  Web apps (using the browser) are now lightning-fast, look great and thanks to the combination of improving data access and HTML standards, the variances are pretty much history.   

So, does it matter which you choose?  Of course. And that is why we are seeing the first rumblings of a revolt against mobile apps and especially the app store concept in the enterprise.  

The App Backlash

So what’s wrong with apps?  Haven’t they taken the world by storm and aren’t they here to stay?  For consumers, maybe.  FMobile Business Intellience Backlashor enterprises, not so much.  Why?

The three culprits preventing mobile BI and other applications to succeed as “apps” are manageability, compatibility and security.

  • Manageability

First, the proliferation of consumer apps is already a management nightmare at many companies. Everyone has their favorite, like Shazam, Twitter or the Zippo Lighter. But what works for consumers (remember, they are their own IT department) is often not a sensible option for enterprise IT. Wayne Eckerson imagines the scenario in his recent blog, titled “The Unspoken Challenge of Mobile BI:”

“It's clear that the IT department is going to have to adapt. They'll need to purchase corporate devices to support development and testing and give devices to employees who don't own them already. But they'll also need to install corporate applications on devices which employees already own. But how are they going to do that? Send them to iTunes or another app store? (Do you really want a corporate application on a consumer shopping site where people can download the application and uncompile it?)

Wayne makes two great points:  The devices don’t always belong to you, and if they get apps from the outside world, how can IT have any control over what apps users download and how they use them? 

On top of that, there is no way to ensure that users are running the correct version of the application, that the “right” users have the “right” apps installed, and that they meet your corporate security requirements (which we’ll dive into later).

  • Compatibility

Beyond the management risks of apps delivered through a public consumer marketplace lies a bigger issue.  As mentioned, the future would say that some of the devices are yours (owned by the company) and some are not.  This leaves another hole in the app story: compatibility.  Even if you think your company has a device standard, you most likely don’t. 

Transpara has been deploying mobile monitoring and BI software at hundreds of enterprises for the past six years, and many claim to have a standard (used to be Blackberry or Windows Mobile; now occasionally hearing Apple and expect to hear Android).  Once we dig for details we find that this is never true.  Even when a company “standardizes” on a platform like Blackberry or Android, there are two things that keep it from truly being a standard: 1) each model or version has differences (e.g. version of the OS) which often requires a new version of the app, and 2) even if you have something that resembles a standard, it only takes one rogue exec or important user to demand a different device and your whole “standard” strategy is off the rails. The most common example of this is Blackberry for everyone, iPhone or iPad for a chosen few. 

This leads to major issues. Software vendors start spending more time supporting new devices and “keeping up” instead of adding great new features, while customers always have holes where certain devices aren’t supported. 

  • Security

The third major pitfall of mobile BI as a local app is security. In a recent post about mobile security we highlighted how users (more than technology) are the weakest link for exposing sensitive data so great policies have to come first.  Beyond that, the best thing you can do is store as little data on the device as possible (another knock against most apps) and share information through references to data (links) and not by sharing the data itself.

The second half of the app security problem is the marketplace / app store issue.  With these new devices, users are downloading hundreds of apps from who knows where and any number of them could contain threats or open holes that might put your sensitive data in the wrong hands.  I think most enterprises would agree, it’s the “not knowing” that scares us the most.

The Case for the Browser

Browser-based mobile dashboards and BI solves many of these issues, assuming they have been implemented well.  They are server-based with no app, so easy to manage, easy to secure (little to no data on the device), as up-to-date as your data, and the vendors only have to support the major browsers (not the thousands of devices).  Lastly, all sharing can be done using links that contain no data so if they get into the wrong hands they are useless to the bad guys. 

Modern mobile web browsers have become extremely fast, feature-rich and can accomplish nearly everything that a custom application can without putting any software on the device. This gets even better with HTML5 on the horizon and within a year or two browser apps will be indistinguishable from their app store brethren.

As consumers, we are as enamored with the latest apps as you are (Angry Birds or Farmville anyone?), but within our enterprise customer base we see the storm brewing.  You?


Transpara is a leading provider of mobile business intelligence. The company’s Visual KPI mobile BI and operations monitoring software provides customers with role-based, actionable KPIs on any web browser. Transpara VP Robert Hylton previously spent 10 years at Microsoft, where he was most recently a Director in Microsoft’s Media & Entertainment Group.

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Wayne Eckerson said:

Excellent post!

Ironically, it seems that user organizations are easily tempted to following an app strategy, lured by flashy native apps and executives with iPads, while a majority of BI vendors now seem to have seen the light and are shifting to browser-based apps. Of course, their customers will follow.

In reality, all vendors are pursuing a hybrid strategy, trying to obtain the best of both worlds (browser and native apps). Certainly, HTML5 tips the balance in favor of a browser-based hybrid strategy.

Ramesh Babu A said:

Interesting and very relevant perspective. Looks like the BI Tool vendors are aware of this dilemma. Vendors like Qliktech has already taken the 'Go-With-Browser' step from their earlier app based approach.

As sheer coincidence, I too have blogged on Mobile BI with similar views at http://blog.allformz.com/?p=331

Rich Winslow said:

Good article! We find ourselves in the same dilemma. We don't want to fragment our staff writing to different platforms and we want the ability to easily enhance our products, so web-based has been our choice.

In addition, we've had to select an appropriate web-based UI (HTML5/Javascript vs. SilverLight). We use HTML5 for public facing apps and SilverLight for apps that we know 100% of the users have SilverLight. There is an interesting phrase: Rich vs. Reach where SilverLight is 'rich' and HTML5 is for 'reach'.

Hass Bey said:

Great article, find out more on the related subject @ biroadwarrior.com

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