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Complex Retail Business Intelligence: Coming Soon To The iPhone?

by William Laurent, William Laurent, Inc.Monday, December 14, 2009

As it gains in acceptance and sophistication, Apple’s iPhone has become positioned to be a future force (albeit a small one for now) in mobile business intelligence.  The critical mass of iPhone users looks to be assured for the foreseeable future.  And at the same time, increasing numbers of third-party application developers the world over are focusing on creating new killer applications for this popular mobile apparatus as they simultaneously port their existing applications to the iPhone OS platform.

An initial ground swell of (functionally limited) performance dashboards and BI-oriented applications appeared quickly after Steve Jobs made the phone’s software development kit (the iPhone SDK) available to non-Apple developers in early 2008.  Since that time, moderate progress has transpired in bringing robust BI tools to market that run on the iPhone.

While BI vendors have done a decent job figuring out how to craft a more interactive and richly visual experience for its  latest operating system - more specifically, iPhone OS 3.1 - formidable hurdles remain to achieving better performance through enhanced memory optimization and better interoperability with non-Apple-focused software frameworks.  However, the big picture is still positive: Despite the current limitations of the platform, we are continuing to see an encouraging evolution of corresponding knowledge management dashboards and data analysis products.

The ties to the retail industry run deep in my family, from the perspectives of both supplier and store owner.  (Although international in scope, their growing operations in North America are still comparatively small.)  Increasingly this business has a pressing need to move some of their inventory, forecasting, and sales functions to a mobile platform.

After weathering the storm of last year’s poor retail economic climate, there is major clamor for operational innovation of existing technology assets.  As would be expected, there is an overwhelming anticipation of near-term iPhone solutions (particularly dashboarding and BI widgets) that have a very small technological and financial footprint.  Many competing small to mid-sized retailers and retail stores will also be looking to mix and match - and mashup - many flavors of functionality on their iPhones in the future.

Some additional thoughts on that functionality:

  • Businesses need to track and manage inventory through interactive PDA technologies, specifically barcode scanning and GPS-enabled search functions.  Such technology can help stores pinpoint the location of an item - from a general geographic region to a specific store or rack/storage unit within a store.  There remains a huge demand for mobile mechanisms that allow for product delivery scheduling and package tracking which can be directly linked to and “overlay” legacy inventory and point of sales (POS) systems.
  • Integration with Google Maps, email, phone applications such as Skype will be expected.
  • The ability to customize, generate and print reports wirelessly from the iPhone will be required.  (All such reporting will need to be highly interactive and a richly visual experience.)
  • Stores need the ability to search on all kinds of data classifications that fully describe products.  E.g., for clothing stores, dimensions may include diverse categorizations such as a base type (pants, shirts, outer-wear), target age group, brand name, seasonality and more.  Meta data will have to be expanded to include information about such things as the people that have stocked the product on store shelves or the return history of a product.
  • Software vendors that offer template-based solutions, such as mashups that work quickly “out of the box” will win initial market share.

With the relentless adoption and acceptance of the iPhone, the barriers between PC-resident productivity applications and those that are wirelessly enabled are breaking down quickly.  It is now possible to get detailed and specific information about supply chains and general sales outlook on the same device that is used for phone calls, taking and storing pictures, listening to MP3 files and podcasts, and downloading multimedia files and state-of-the-art games.

But things must evolve further and faster.  Future versions of the iPhone and its innovative operating system will need to be more open and more attractive to third-party application development.  BI software creators will also be expecting future devices to achieve large leaps in faster processor speeds, increased hard disk storage and better memory utilization.  For the present time, there exist a number of nifty AJAX-powered graphical reporting applications which perform admirably on the latest iterations of the device, offering a thorough set of vanilla business intelligence functions.

In the face of these novel iPhone applications, there remain many pitfalls for retailers with respect to seamless data integration - issues of replication, redundancy, siloed records and more.  Data resident on a mobile device tends to take on a temperament of its own once it becomes detached from traditional corporate data storage devices and point-of-sales systems.

About the Author

William Laurent is one of the world's leading experts in information strategy and governance. For 20 years, he has advised numerous businesses and governments on technology strategy, performance management, and best practices´┐Żacross all market sectors. William currently runs an independent consulting company that bears his name. In addition, he frequently teaches classes, publishes books and magazine articles, and lectures on various technology and business topics worldwide. As Senior Contributing Author for Dashboard Insight, he would enjoy your comments at wlaurent@williamlaurent.com

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