Q&A: BI Expert Names Top Innovations

Top BI innovations include mobile devices, social networking

In each of the past seven years, BI expert Cindi Howson has listed what she considers the top categories of innovations in business intelligence technology. The well-known analyst spoke with BI This Week about her most recent "Cool BI" list of technologies affecting BI, touching on leading vendors as well as niche players.

Howson, who is the author of Successful Business Intelligence: Secrets to Making BI a Killer App, teaches regularly at TDWI conferences. She also addressed the topic of BI innovation at a TDWI Webinar in March.

BI This Week: How do you select the categories for your Cool BI designations?

Cindi Howson: I look at current challenges in business intelligence, which you can break down into two broad areas. One challenge is making BI more pervasive, which means reaching different classes of users; the other challenge is time to insight. I look at any innovation that speaks to those challenges.

One of the categories that you've included on your "Cool BI" list this year is advanced visualization. How does that differ from the kinds of visualization that we're already seeing?

The kinds of visualizations that we have been seeing for a long time are charts, and perhaps visualizations with a richer display. Advanced visualization and discovery, on the other hand, is a more interactive way of working with the data. With advanced visualization, the visualization and query process is one and the same. It's much more exploratory. You may start out not knowing what you're looking for, whereas with traditional BI, the user [tends to say,] "Here are my specific questions. Now how do I go about answering them?"

In terms of maturity, how do you see advanced visualization?

The product itself is very mature, but the market is highly fragmented, with lots of niche players. Those include TIBCO Spotfire, Tableau, Advizor Solutions, and Visual Mining.

The market is immature in terms of our understanding of it, and also in terms of [companies] embracing advanced visualization as part of a total BI strategy. Many of these visualization tools are deployed off to the side on their own, and the BI team may not understand how they complement -- and sometimes compete with -- the BI platform. Although visualization is immature as an industry, the technology is mature and should be part of every BI deployment.

In terms of most of the leading BI vendors, some of them do get it. We're seeing some innovations -- for example, visualization is much more a part of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, a new product. ... Also, MicroStrategy has a widget as part of its dashboard. In general, there is some convergence with advanced visualization and [leading] BI platforms, but the better products tend to be standalone.

What about in-memory analytics, which is another of your Cool BI categories?

There is some confusion in the industry around the terms in-memory and advanced visualization. They're not one and the same. They can be related, because some of the advanced visualization products will use an in-memory approach, but not all of them do that. The two technologies can be complementary, but they are not synonymous.

In-memory is really about speed-of-thought analysis, and here, too, there are two approaches. One is that in-memory products should stand alone from BI -- from the data warehouse and from the entire BI environment. That is the case, for example, with QlikTech's QlikView, as well as TIBCO Spotfire.

On the other hand, some of the other in-memory approaches, such as MicroStrategy, SAP's NetWeaver Business Warehouse Accelerator, and even Microsoft Gemini are all extensions of the data warehouse.

In-memory is gaining adoption because of improvements and greater adoption of 64-bit operating systems. That's what's really changed here. You can really almost fit your entire data warehouse in memory; that allows both for speed-of-thought analysis and -- which is almost more important -- it allows business users to ask and answer complex business questions. Without this technology, those queries would either time out, or the data warehouse database architect would have to work extra hard to ensure [good] performance, especially with resource-intensive tasks like indexing or summary tables.

What do you see happening in mobile BI, another of your categories? That seems like a timely and exciting technology right now. How do you see mobile BI shaping up in the marketplace?

It's interesting that you say that it's exciting, because the long-time BI experts [seem to think] it's boring – "Haven't we heard this before?" That's because we've been talking about mobile BI for a decade. It got hot a couple of years ago with Blackberry smart phones; a few vendors came out with some purpose-built Blackberry applications. What's hot this year is the iPhone -- its overall appeal, the things you can do, the zooming, the orientation, the high-fidelity graphs that you can display, along with the utility of having location awareness and a built-in camera. It opens up new usages that we really haven't thought of before.

Initially, as an industry, we thought of mobile BI as perhaps mostly for travelling executives, but now, BI smart phone applications are getting richer, opening up mobile BI to anyone who needs data at any point during the day, no matter where they are. That could be a salesperson, or it could be a field worker.

How well are companies addressing the mobile BI market -- with purpose-built viewers, for example?

It varies. All the BI vendors are definitely looking at the mobile market. … Some vendors that have been among the first to support mobile BI are Oracle, Actuate, and QlikTech. Other vendors have [works in progress] but haven't yet shipped them. … Everyone knows it's important.

My big caveat with this innovation is that companies need to know their smart phone standard. The iPhone is used widely by consumers, but the Blackberry probably still reigns as the leader in terms of corporate standards, although that might be changing. What does the Droid bring, and the Windows smartphone? There's still plenty of battling for market share, and support for these other devices is variable.

Let's talk about social media, which is another of your Cool BI categories. What makes social media cool and innovative these days?

Part of it is the whole acceleration of social networking in general -- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so forth. We need to view it in two ways as it relates to BI. One is the way that social media tools work, and the second is in terms of sentiment analysis and mining the data.

In terms of the way people and social media work -- somebody recently asked in one of my classes, "Why can't my BI tool work like Facebook?" Yes, big BI vendors are thinking about that, but I'm also seeing innovations from niche vendors such as Lyzasoft. That's a start-up whose product, Lyza, has some really interesting collaboration capabilities. … On the other end of the scale, you have Information Builders, for example, that has a new release in the fall with more extensive collaboration capabilities.

Plenty is happening in that space. It's an area of the market that everyone needs to be paying attention to. They may not decide to deploy today, but the accelerated adoption of social media will definitely have an impact on BI.

When you talk about sentiment analysis and mining the data, how mature is the industry in that area?

We're very immature there. Many of the vendors I talk to have developed their own solutions -- there are probably a dozen different vendors. It's an even more fragmented market than advanced visualization. Companies [such as] BuzzMetrics and Visible Technologies [have products] … and SAS just announced something. There isn't much awareness of the dozen or so niche vendors. It's still a whole new category -- social networking didn't exist until a couple of years ago or was not widely used.

Is there awareness among customers that they need some tools to analyze the flow of customer data coming in from Web sites?

I think it's growing. Many companies are still trying to decide where social media fits in terms of their customer service and marketing strategy. That's really where we are today. That will be the next step: What are people saying, and how do we mine it?

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