Mobile Business Apps
Roambi Brings Mobility and Simplicity to Business Intelligence
Think of an image for business intelligence and you’ll most likely envision something static and immobile–sprawling data centers full of warehoused data, visualization software bound to desktop workstations and demo presentations full of sterile, un-intuitive visuals that further confuse rather than clarify. Roambi’s sleek flagship solution addresses those two BI issues: mobility and accessibility. We talked to Roambi president of product innovation Quinton Alsbury to find out about how they seek to democratize the power of BI.
What was the inspiration behind Roambi?
Well, my partners and I came out of a background in data visualization and intelligent applications and we’re all off doing different things. But when the first iPhone came out in 2007 it was obvious to us that this device, and what it heralded for mobile devices in general, was going to change everything, especially in terms of software applications.
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So basically every software application ended up and been developed would have to not just be redone, as in ported to work on a phone, but to be completely redesigned and redefined in terms of what it did; how a user interacted with it and the value that it would provide in a mobile scenario. So we got extraordinarily excited about the possibilities, and coming from a visual perspective, looking at that device and the interface that it provided like the intuitiveness of direct manipulation of the touch screen. We got extraordinarily enthusiastic about taking some of the high level business intelligence concepts that had existed in the world in enterprise for decades and basically rethinking them and redefining and redesigning them for a direct end user experience on a device like no other with the iPhone.
That’s really what we set out to do when started the company about six months before Apple had even announced that they were going to open up the iOS platform for development. We just kind of had a hunch that there was going to be an opportunity there. We started working on what that new world of mobile data visualization in MBI (mobile business intelligence) was going to look like.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but is what you’re doing is strictly data visualization?
Yeah. The idea was taking complex business information and putting it into an end user friendly experience and that will include not only the way that it’s visualized, but the way that the user moves through it. It provides performance that rivals, basically, anything that they typically use on a phone. Instead of what they usually do in a legacy scenario where they’re connecting from their laptop to a browser that’s hooked up to a server at company headquarters. I end up showing them a giant spreadsheet full of data. Something like that is almost unintelligible to a lot of average users.
Especially when it comes down to looking at and trying to consume that type of information on a mobile device. Like on an iPhone or an iPad. So it is visualization in terms of taking those complex data sets out of systems like SAP and Cognos and Oracle Business Intelligence or even something as simple as Excel for an average user that just has some data that they work with on their daily job and converting that into a really visual application on their normal device to help them understand and navigate their data better.
Are you noticing any strong trends in terms who’s generating the most demand for mobile BI, specific industries/verticals or businesses of any particular size that are coming to you for your solution?
In terms of the industry scope there is no specific hotspot. It’s pretty much every major industry that’s looking for and dealing with and tackling the content of getting important business data and metrics to users in mobile form. What you find inside of any one of those companies, inside of any one of those industries, you have two different ways that it’s propagating. One is the traditional IP-centric push of BI from where it exists in the desktop or laptop environment onto mobile for the same users. So we have these 500 guys looking at dashboards on their laptop and we’ve got to figure out how to get these 500 guys’ dashboards and BI onto their mobile devices. And it’s a very classic “we need to port from here to here” type of thought process.
Then there’s other companies who are identifying completely new use cases for a well-informed user base. Taking BI concepts and putting important data in people’s hands to help them make better decisions, but looking beyond what were traditional BI users. Let’s say all of a sudden they’re putting roaming in the hands of 2,000 field guys who now have iPads, who would have never accessed a classic BI system before. But because of the portability of the device and Roambi’s success at turning the information into something that’s highly and usable for these guys, all of a sudden it’s something that they can actually utilize when they’re walking into a customer. They can sit down with them an open their iPad and start walking the customers through their product sales for the month, etc.
So [Roambi] is uncovering completely new usages, and a lot of times those reasons are coming from the users themselves, saying, “I’ve got this device. If I could just have this information on it, I could do my job that much better.” And a lot of times they’re pushing back the IT to get that content moved out.
Who would would be the archetypal user that uses Roambi inside a company?
It’s hard to answer a question like that because there’s actually not a clean answer because the needs are so broad. The opportunity to use this type of data and use that type of information to gain the advantage in a lot of different scenarios makes the application attractive to a pretty broad spectrum of users up and down through an organization from the executive officers using it to track high level overall company performance and metrics in areas that they’re watching over.
I sit down to entire sales force to finance, where they’re tracking the financial data. A company is, especially now-a-days, are overflowing with data coming from a lot of different inputs to the organization from their website. From their sales, from HR data, et cetera, and there’s so many place where that can be used effectively if it was properly presented and displayed and put on a device where people can use it; in a context of being inside of the warehouse or walking into a sales meeting or standing in the hallway having an impromptu meeting.
What kind of things do you guys do differently from other people in the BI visualization space right now.
Well, the design is first and foremost in our mind and we’re not afraid to say that because you can have millions of dollars of infrastructure and data warehouses, setting data and aggregating it from multiple sources and warehousing and organizing it, et cetera, but if it fails to make it out the door into the hands of an end user who’s actually going to look at it and utilize it in the course of their daily functions to do something more efficiently or make it better decision, the entire investment collapses.
So we started off with design and accessibility as our focus and, like I said, we were really inspired by the iPhone. I think what that led us to that was going into a really in-depth rethink on the design of the interface to this type of information that has now translated up into the iPad. It’s become, in a lot of ways, superior to the way we looked at this type of information previously, even on laptops. That really is the major differentiation; we believe that the mobile paradigm of how people want to look and move through their content changes not only the way you design the interface, but also the architecture.
It’s completely different than what you would find in traditional BI companies where the first goal is, “we want to do this as cheaply and quickly as possible. Therefore, doing native development of an iPad or an iPhone application is really expensive and what happens when we have to deal with Windows or with Android and with browsers, so let’s pull back and just make a simple web UI for people to log in, regardless of what device their on and access it.” But the problem is that you’re dealing with an experience where every time a user clicks on a button they’re waiting two or three seconds for the application to go to the server and return results, and when you translate that down into a mobile use case, it completely falls apart because network variability is fickle, at best. Very commonly you walk from one block to the next and you lose your entire signal and that’s not even counting being on a plane or a train or a subway, et cetera. But most importantly, the expectation that users have about how their applications perform five minutes before they opened up this work application to get an answer to a question that they needed, they were probably playing Angry Birds or using some other local product in the application on their device and those things performed instantaneously. That’s what people are trained to expect, especially on these new devices.
Their world has been opened up to this universe of really high-end consumer applications they use on a daily basis, and then they come to a work application and all of a sudden they get a spinning icon as they wait there for ten minutes for it to connect to a server. Roambi actually brings the data down locally to the device. So even if they’ve lost connection, they’re still looking at the last update to the data that they had when they had it there on their device and everything performs instantaneously as they move through in the interface because all the data’s stored locally and then updates whenever it has network connection.
And then, lastly, because we’re focused on that end user experience, we’re not really beholden to where the data comes from. So if a traditional BI company makes a mobile front end, they make a mobile front end to their content exclusively, whereas we actually take data from a variety of different sources, so we kind of provide a unifying place where all of your content can come together in a unified, high-end user experience on the device, so those are some of the big differences about how we approach this stuff. And it really stems from the company’s roots. Starting as a mobile company versus coming from a legacy of 20, 30 years past and trying to have a box to say that we have a mobile solutions, as well.
A common stereotype of mobile business apps is that they’re watered down versions of fully featured programs. Many of them in fact are, but that isn’t the case with Roambi. Has battling that misconception been a challenge you’ve encountered?
Well, first of all, I think we actually look at feature simplification as one of the three components of a proper rethink and redesign of something for mobile. That’s kind of been heresy in enterprise software because, again, they want to make one product that takes care of everything, servicing 50,000 customers in one application, and so they just keep adding features and adding features and adding features and adding features till you need to go to a four-month training course to get certified to know how to use that particular application.
In mobile you can’t do that because the use case is different. People aren’t sitting at their computer going through a long, hour, two-hour-long process to get to something. They’re literally pulling their phone out of their pocket as they’re walking into a scenario and wanting to be able to get to something quickly, and they don’t need a lot of that feature stuff that’s been built. We actually try to focus the features as opposed to just cutting them. We focus them down and that’s why the application consists of these 11 different mini applications that we call Views. Each one of them is designed to present a certain type of data in a certain way with a certain set of analytic features, so that it’s highly specialized and you pick which one is going to work for that user and that data set that he’s looking at.
So, again, the way that we approach educating consumers is actually challenging them to think about what their people are actually going to be doing when they’re not sitting at their desk. How they’re actually going to be using the data, not just, “let’s give them everything and give them access to everything with every single feature and we’ll let them figure it out.” It’s to think about what they’re going to be doing. Get them that data in the best possible format for them and call it down. It’s been overwhelmingly successful, in terms of our customers buying into that and pushing tons of data out to users that never got it before.
How has your partnership with Statistics South Africa influenced the work you’re doing right now?
It’s a great validation of everything that we are trying to do and that we just talked about for the last 20 minutes. The idea that by stepping back and redesigning something from the ground all the way up for this new type of end-user experience that you can actually change the way that people perceive and interact with and consume the information.
A lot of times it’s information that people would never would have thought was relevant to them or thought that they would ever be looking at. That South African example is a fantastic one because here’s a government doing its first census ever and trying to create an amount of hype with their populous around this data that they’re generating about their country, and they chose Roambi as the communication medium for that data out to the people of South Africa. They perceived what Roambi does, in terms of the way it takes the data and makes it visual and makes it consumable to people who have no idea what business intelligence means and who will never, ever open up an IBM Cognos report. They are now looking at their country’s census data in an app on their iPad. So the fact that the government of South Africa saw that in the product and believe that that a way that they could make this content relevant to that end user, at the core that’s what we try to do.
Where is BI headed in the next five years? What sort of challenges and opportunities do you see arising?
The importance of BI as a concept is only going to grow exponentially as, again, this is going to be a tsunami of data that will only grow and grow. The next phase on the horizon is big data. These huge amounts of web data being pulled in, being logged across these massive diversified systems. And all of that data is our nuggets of gold and wisdom that can really help everyone.
It’s really not just a business problem either. I was just reading an article about the Obama campaign and one of the reasons that they consider themselves to be so successful is that had whole squads of quantitative analysts sitting in a back room, basically just crunching through social media data, web traffic data, et cetera, helping them finely tune their message for different demographics. Scheduling fundraisers in the right areas with the right people, et cetera. It was claimed that was why they were so successful. I think that signifies that we’re moving into a quantitative world where everything can be measured because everything is happening through digital interfaces. Through your phone, through websites or kiosks, and all that stuff can be tracked and really help guide decision making regardless of what, whether it’s business or charity or government.
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