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Business intelligence expert Paul Devlin looks at how tablet PCs and smartphones are enabling retailers to use mobile business intelligence in a way that can have a substantial impact on their business

Paul Devlin, UK country manager for business intelligence (BI) software firm MicroStrategy, believes retailers can benefit from truly mobile BI. 

“Retail has always been one of the most mobile of industries, with executives visiting stores geographically dispersed across a region or even country,” he said.

“The need to compare performance and data across stores has always been great. But while mobile business intelligence has existed as a concept for several years now, the limitations of devices meant that it was merely a pared-down version of traditional enterprise BI.”

The recent rise of popularity in smart computing devices means that retailers on the move now have access to data, which is presented in a way that is both digestible and actionable. Devlin said mobile BI can provide improved analysis and also allow the user to instantly take action on data, as well as edit reports and displays.

Unlocking mobile intelligence

“The idea of mobile business intelligence, with instantly accessible, real-time data on a store’s performance has long been desirable for retailers,” Devlin said. “But until recently, mobile BI has not taken off in any significant way. The increase in use of mobile BI was born out by the research advisory firm Gartner, which as part of its ‘Predicts 2011’ body of research forecast that by 2013, 33% of BI functionality will be consumed via handheld devices.”

Devlin feels that this figure could be even bigger, as businesses of all types begin to embrace the functionality of tablet PCs. “Taking a report, dashboard or graph designed for a PC screen and shrinking it to fit onto a mobile handset meant that information was hard to read and nigh-on impossible to manipulate and interact with. Smartphones are addressing this, with screens getting bigger and touchscreen interaction becoming commonplace. But it is tablet PCs that have been the real game changer for mobile BI. I particularly mean the iPad. Its large screen makes mobile BI apps far easier to read and engage with although analysts are expecting great things from tablets based on Intel's Oak Trail tablet processor.”

What is really driving adoption though is the chance for retailers to use bespoke mobile BI apps designed specifically for the iPad, a trend Devlin has noticed particularly within the UK retail sector. “We’ve seen demand for our Mobile QuickStrike – a ten-day turnaround, bespoke mobile BI app – really take off amongst retailers. We are receiving scores of enquires every week, are currently working on a variety of different iPad apps for UK retailers and have already implemented a hugely successful app for one of the top five global retailers and another for a major online retailer.”

Interacting on the move

He continued: “Bespoke apps allow retailers to interact with data there and then. Our apps can even come with transactional capabilities that allow a user to immediately act on data, such as approve requests, place orders and make additional purchases. This is invaluable for any retailer with multiple stores and is going to further accelerate the rise of mobile BI throughout 2012 and beyond.”

One criticism of mobile BI platforms has been around security: what if a device with such rich and easily accessible data fell into the wrong hands? Devlin believes that security has never been better. “Data wiping functionality is commonplace nowadays. So if a tablet containing all your sales figures was lost, then it is straightforward to remotely strip any sensitive data from it. And our platform uses data encryption to prevent anyone lifting information that they shouldn’t see.”

“Tablet PCs have allowed mobile BI to develop in a way that was unthinkable just a few years ago,” concluded Devlin. “Data is now faster and easier to read and users can interact with it in real-time. Mobile is indisputably the future of business intelligence.”

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