BI takes a bite at Apple's iPhone
Business intelligence on your iPhone? Oracle certainly thinks so. But will that slick touch screen really give you the freedom others have long promised?Mobile business intelligence promises to go anywhere. But so far it hasn't, despite vendors feverishly adding new mobility features to their platforms. So why has Oracle announced new business intelligence (BI) software for the wildly popular iPhone? And why does it think it will succeed on Apple's device where others have failed?When Oracle announced its plans to bring the world of BI to the iPhone, it may have sounded like a case of déjà vu for those old enough to remember the hype surrounding WAP (wireless application protocol) and promises to recreate the desktop in the palm of your hand.This isn't the first time BI vendors have tried to untie BI from corporate desktops. Suffice to say the idea is great – executives no longer tethered to their desk to get BI information and metrics. In reality though, compelling use cases for real-world business applications were extremely limited – mainly to senior executives, and field sales and support staff. However, that hasn't stopped SAP/Business Objects, IBM/Cognos, MicroStrategy and Information Builders from developing BI links to RIM's BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Symbian devices.Oracle, perhaps conscious of the fact it lags behind other BI vendors in the area of mobile BI, is now investing R&D dollars to develop a slew of iPhone applications. The first of these is Business Indicators, which is available as a free download from Apple's newly launched iTunes-like App Store. Of course, it's not free because customers must have licensed Oracle's BI Enterprise Edition Plus and BI Applications Fusion Edition software, which generates the BI content (reports, analyses and alerts) that finds its way onto the iPhone's slick touch-screen interface.Business Indicators only works as a thin-client solution using the built-in Safari web browser to deliver select and targeted metrics and report content from Oracle's BI Suite. It's by no means an interactive dashboard experience. For a truer bi-directional experience, Oracle customers will have to wait until Oracle broadens the range of applications that can be accessed by iPhone, hinting at certain modules of its ERP and CRM suite.So why is Oracle targeting iPhone as opposed to the market-leading BlackBerry? A logical reason could be its potential growth. Oracle is banking on a spike in iPhone adoption, especially among corporate users. Word is that sales employees, the obvious beneficiaries of Oracle's push, are dipping into their own pockets to use the iPhone after employers refuse to meet the expense. From a technical standpoint, Apple recognises the enterprise attraction of its device and is offering a strong development kit and support for web services. It also plans to add features for corporate virtual private networks (VPNs) and desktop applications such as Microsoft Exchange.However, the iPhone may struggle to break into the business mainstream. One barrier is that all management of the device is done through an iTunes-like store and it's hard to see corporate IT departments rushing to support that on corporate laptops.Oracle, like many others, is building iPhone applications for their cool factor and public relations value, especially in the US. The iPhone is another trendy Web 2.0 device that plays heavily towards the trademark intuitiveness and ease of use that Apple bakes into the design of all its products. Apple is, of course, building on a successful iPod legacy in the consumer market. Whereas the iPod accelerated the convergence of disk storage, music and high-resolution video on a sleeker device, the iPhone threatens to do the same thing to phones, PDAs and even the iPod – especially as business users use mobile phones and laptops almost interchangeably, and those phones support even richer displays of web content pushing users to seek deeper access to corporate data.Mobile BI has had some many false dawns, caused not so much by technology barriers, but from the lack of a killer application. "Coolness" can only take it so far and it will take a lot more for the iPhone to appeal to the world of business computing – let alone BI – and drive adoption to levels reached by that of RIM or Windows Mobile in the enterprise segment. Nevertheless, with mobile networks becoming more powerful and the gap between what you can do on a laptop and what you can do on a PDA device narrowing, application software vendors will no doubt continue to see opportunities for phone/handheld computer convergence. In the meantime, BI is still a long way from becoming part of the morning commute.