Sunday, February 27, 2011

Do companies really want transparency and collaboration?

Just finished our annual conference on planning tools. As usual, I talked to a lot of customers and vendors, and one theme came up several times: Some of the great features that vendors have on the roadmaps for their tools and that analyst list high in their discussions of trends for the new year may not be customer requirements at all.

I'm not talking about platform issues like mobile BI. This is about actual features of the tool. In particular, features that shed light on the thought processes that lead to the final planning numbers. Here are some specific remarks:

  • Fine grained comments, for example comments on individual numbers, are rarely used.
  • Detailed collaboration is often better done off line. Is this a tool issue or a cultural issue?
  • Comments from large user groups tend to be too low in quality to be of much use.
  • Middle management sometimes opposes processes that encourage transparency, even if they save time and effort.
  • In some cases middle managers feel that storing data locally until it has been verified is better for them. So (to get back to a platform issue) Web-based data collection is not as popular as you might expect, a trend I have mentioned before.
Of course these are not universal truths. But it is interesting to hear how often they are mentioned.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Business intelligence and the iPad

I have been observing the wave of BI vendors coming out with applications for the iPad with some interest. QlikTech and MicroStrategy, who are always quick to move with the latest market trends, were among the first. IBM Cognos waited for their new release but also have a client as well. And with SAP having just spent billions on Sybase for its mobile technology, it’s not surprising to see SAP has also jumped into the fray with a new iPad client for Crystal Reports and the BusinessObjects Explorer – though not, as far as I know, using Sybase technology.

But the point here is not to list all the iPad BI clients available – I am sure I have missed a few. What interest me more is the question of how these interfaces are designed. The key to making a mobile reporting interface work is to squeeze interface onto a very small screen. There are lots of tricks for doing this, most of them involving navigations tricks with simple gestures to make traversing the interface feel natural.

But the iPad really does not have that small a screen. In fact, with a 9.7 inch diagonal, it is about the same size as an Asus Eee screen. It does not weigh a lot less either. But despite Eee’s success, business intelligence companies were not falling all over themselves to create a new interface of the Eee.

Furthermore, in my opinion, the interface that Apple gave the iPad is not quite appropriate. The first time I saw it I just thought, “Oh cool, it’s like the biggest iPhone ever”, and so did many other people, I suspect. But frankly, the iPhone interface does not expand all that well. In short, the iPhone interface is a good interface because it is visually attractive and it handles the severe size constraint it is subject to quite well. To make this possible, the users’ choices are intentionally limited, but users do not mind since the device is so small. But the IPad does not really have this constraint, and so the restrictions are more of an inconvenience. Furthermore, the bigger screen gives the user way of interacting with the software, so looking simple becomes more and more cryptic.

So iPad interfaces tend to discard the typical desktop standards that have been accepted over the decades (for better or worse) and replace them with a concept that is finely tuned for a completely different format. But most users – especially users of business tools as opposed to toys – are more interested in the content of the application than in fancy interaction techniques. Business intelligence vendors may be better off just making sure their Web applications work well on Safari running on the IPad than spending time developing iPad specific applications.