Mobile BI

Teams look to HTML5 for mobile BI development on varied devices

Jack Vaughan

While mobile business intelligence (BI) applications show promise, they present a major challenge to development teams that must support a wide array of mobile device types and software versions. The effort

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can consume too much development time. That is why new-generation HTML5 BI applications are being closely watched by many in the IT industry.

Written in JavaScript and supporting increasingly sophisticated graphical capabilities, HTML5 runs in Web browsers, and is somewhat agnostic as to the nature of the device running the browser. That makes it a favored option for development, whether the application is BI related or not.

In the past, we could always control our destiny [but] now we are dealing with the BYOD concept.

Michael Hegarty,
corporate business strategy, Lipari Foods

"HTML5, is the preferred platform for delivering BI apps to mobile devices mostly because it allows you to create a 'report/dashboard' once and have it automatically available on any mobile device with an HTML5 compliant browser," said Boris Evelson, a vice president and application development analyst with Forrester Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based IT research firm.

HTML5 applications have advanced caching options that improve mobile device operation. The standard's Canvas element supports highly visual presentations that can enhance analytics visualizations. The standard's support for Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) means that application developers can deliver rich and detailed data views.

There are tradeoffs with HTML5 on mobile machines, however, according to experts. Running applications in the browser helps flatten the bumps associated with multi-platform support issues. But since HTML5 apps do not speak directly to the device at hand, they cannot easily tap into native OS capabilities such as GPS, video and audio. Workarounds exist in the form of hybrids that combine HTML5 and native OSes.

Other issues include availability and skills. The HTML5 standard has been a very long time in the making, and is still evolving. Advanced JavaScript developers capable of creating applications in the format can be hard to find in large numbers.

Although BI software vendors can bear some of the development burden, it is not easy for vendors to suddenly shift product lines to HTML5. It is a milestone in many a vendors' roadmap.

Companies including JackBe, Jaspersoft, Information Builders, Qlikview, SAP and others have released HTML5 versions of their software. Last year, IBM bought mobile middleware maker Worklight to bring more effective support for HTML5 mobile development to products, including its Cognos BI line. Other software companies are working on the HTML5 BI front.

Business reporting gets the HTML5 treatment

Information Builders users got a view of HTML5 software for the WebFocus8 reporting software suite at the company's recent user conference. Individuals at the Information Builders 2013 Summit in Orlando, Fla. said such software will have an eventual effect on their business reporting processes.

"Support for browser based HTML5 is a plus," said Kevin Webster, business intelligence reporting manager for Indianapolis-based Protrans, a supply-chain manager focused on shipping and logistics.

Webster has seen significant advances in Protrans' business intelligence capabilities since arriving there about four years ago. Financial reports once built manually with Microsoft Access and Excel are now created using the Information Builders WebFocus tool set. Webster expects that information portals incorporating HTML5 and mobile clients will also represent a significant advance.

At Protrans, Webster oversees three reporting groups and acts as an intermediary between IT and business operations. Which side he leans toward "depends on what day of the week it is," he said.

Information Builders HTML5 reporting dashboards allow developers to set up functionality, just by cutting and pasting appropriate widgets. View sizes can be adjusted for different device types. The BI screens available can be selected or deselected by end-users based on their ways of working.

"We are looking forward to HTML5 simply to make the presentation better," Webster said, adding that the WebFocus8 customization capabilities are welcome.

"Every customer wants online delivery of reports, but each one wants something a little different," he said, "There is always one user that doesn't fit the mold."

He added that the Information Builders software's ability to pick up corporate color schemes from samples -- for example, of corporate web pages -- helps his teams, which may not be naturally versed in user interface design, to more easily produce better looking reports.

Corned beef, seafood salad and HTML5

As in freight distribution, mobile BI shows promise in areas like food distribution, where changes in data reporting methods are underway. For example, a provisions company, which reaches from upstream food vendors to downstream customers in supermarkets, can be transformed by mobile devices.

But distributors are not in a position to require use of specific kinds of compute clients. That is a place where HTML5 BI applications can be particularly useful, according to Michael Hegarty, a business line leader at Lipari Foods, a Warren, Mich.-based foods distributor that provides deli, bakery and other specialty grocery products. Lipari shares reports with both its suppliers and the retailers who sell its goods.

"Internally, in the past, we could always control our destiny in terms of the hardware and software [but] now we are dealing with the [bring your own device] concept," Hegarty said. "You have to factor that in."

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Hegarty at Lipari, like Kevin Webster at Protans, has seen advances in reporting as his company moved from reliance on Access and Excel to use of Information Builders reporting tools. He also sees changes coming with the advent of mobile BI.

Customers these days want to look at their reports on a variety of machines, be they Macs, Google Chromebooks or other kinds of machines, Hegarty said. The iPad, particularly, has "really reset the experience level that consumers are expecting," he said.

Information Builders did a good job of creating a 'develop one time and deploy it anywhere' capability, with its new software, he said. This comes in handy in-house too, where various departments may use various device types as part as their report-related work.

Hegarty's colleague Joe Beydoun said he appreciates the extent to which JavaScript development is supported within the new HTML5 tool set. He also commends Information Builders approach to BI security.

"They are focused on mobile. A simple but important change they made was to support security right down to the procedure level, versus before, when it was done by groups and domains," said Beydoun, who manages Lipari's distribution systems and business intelligence efforts.

Beydoun was impressed with the appearance of the new format, and its potential use in business intelligence reporting for mobile apps.

"The whole look and feel of HTML5 is beautiful," he said.

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