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Analysis: Microsoft's BI Partners Are Riding the Tablet Wave

Tablet computers -- especially Apple's iPad, the market leader in tablet devices by many measurements -- are increasingly being used as a complement to (and in some cases, as a replacement for) conventional desktops or laptops.

Many of Microsoft's business intelligence (BI) partners are already preparing for how tablets will transform the way enterprises present and consume information. Leading BI executives at Microsoft partner companies -- including Bill Hewitt, CEO of Gold-certified Kalido, and Michael Corcoran, vice president of marketing for Gold-certified Information Builders Inc. (IBI) -- have embraced the iPad, which bodes well for the enterprise prospects of tablet computers, since executives tend to have more sway over inflexible IT departments than other types of workers. Other BI executives tote both a laptop and an iPad, though most would probably prefer to tote only the latter.

Hewitt, for one, didn't initially intend to go laptop-less. Owing to a delivery snafu, he said, he canceled an order for a new laptop and decided to try to tough it out on his iPad. "Tough," however, doesn't quite describe Hewitt's experience.

"I love it. I use it for everything. It's so much more convenient. I carry it with me all day, wherever I go, whatever I'm doing," he said.

What did Hewitt's IT department think about his decision?

"I told them, 'This is my new computer. I'm going to use it for everything,' and that's what I've been doing," he said, smiling benignly.

Although Kalido's software isn't overly dependent on a pretty UI, a next-gen device like the iPad can show its business information modeler (BIM) to excellent effect, Hewitt contended. A user experience like that of the iPad can "enhance the way that [BIM] is used. If you think about the way [BIM is] designed, it promotes collaboration between IT and business. Just imagine [IT and the business] collaborating with an iPad, using touchscreen instead of mouse. It's a completely different experience."

IBI's Corcoran likewise uses his iPad exclusively. He loves it, according Jake Freivald, a product marketing manager for IBI who works with Corcoran. "He uses it for everything. He came in [with his iPad] and said, 'I got this, and I'm going to use it.' That's basically what [he's been able to do]."

Freivald, for his part, is bullish on tablet devices. In many ways, he said, tablets or non-traditional mobile computing devices are the perfect tools and offer the perfect context for the kind of lightweight, pervasive analysis that he, Corcoran and other IBI employees have been promoting for the last 18 months.

"Mobile BI tends to be a little less analytical because in many cases it's being pushed down to these [non-traditional user] constituencies," he said. "The people running those kinds of [mobile] apps are typically not people who are doing analysis. Part of a CMO's job is to ask lots and lots of questions. A guy who drives a truck and is worried about stocking shelves is only going to be asking questions that are specific to him."

At the same time, he stressed, the iPad isn't the end-all and be-all of mobile devices.

"Last year was the Year of the iPad as an interactive client device. We would hear from our customers, 'We want a native app just for the iPad. We're only going to be iPad.' But that tune has changed a bit over the last four or five months. What we're also seeing is that people are bringing their own devices into work, and while many these are iPads, some of them aren't," he said.

When it comes to mobile computing, IBI, like many software vendors, has focused on delivering rich Web applications (based on HTML5) instead of native- or platform-specific applications. This jibes with a recent study from software development researcher Evans Data Corp., which found that a majority of mobile developers are focusing on Web apps instead of native apps -- despite the dominance of the iPad, or (in the small-form-factor mobile arena) the iOS or Android platforms.

Risky Business?
While mobile computing is undoubtedly here to stay, it poses unique risks of its own, such as "juice-jacking."

At the recent DefCon conference in Las Vegas, several hundred attendees -- the bulk of them, presumably, security-conscious folk who should've known better -- plugged their cell phones into a phony charging kiosk.

This exploit, which experts dub "juice-jacking," was sponsored by information security specialist Aires Security and was intended as a cautionary proof-of-concept demonstration. Attendees who plugged in received the following message: "You should not trust public kiosks with your smartphone. Information can be retrieved or downloaded without your consent. Luckily for you, this station has taken the ethical route and your data is safe. Enjoy the free charge!"

It's one of many reasons why companies will have to think long and hard about how much they're going to expose -- and how they're going to expose it, said IBI's Freivald. "It really will depend on the company. Maybe there are cases where you don't want persistent data, or maybe you want to make it so that you can only go back to the server live -- [i.e.] you can't save it on the device. These are things that the companies themselves are going to have to determine.

"The way that we handle [security] in mobile isn't radically different from how you'd protect a [desktop or laptop] computer -- things like passwords and expiration dates. If you're concerned about giving away information accidentally or maliciously, you have to worry about someone taking screen captures [of the device]. There are so many different [vectors]."

On the other hand, maybe it isn't a question of having the most mobile device, like a tablet or smartphone, but of having a more mobile laptop. After all, even executives who don't tote an iPad seem to have a weakness for an iPad-like form factor.

For example, Michael Whitehead, the CEO of Gold-certified Microsoft ISV WhereScape Inc., sports the latest, lightest and leanest version of Apple's MacBook Air. Whitehead previously used a netbook PC laptop that -- notwithstanding the compactness of its length and width -- was almost an inch thick. His new iPad-sized MacBook Air? Just over a quarter inch at its thickest point.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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