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10/28/2004
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BI And The Web API

BI applications are at the leading edge of the battle between thick desktop and thin Web clients. We track the trends between thick and thin in the world of BI.

Among enterprise applications, BI often leads the way in user interface capabilities. Think of tabular and chart output, pivot tables, and graphic reports on the desktop. Now the Web application programming interface (API), using a variety of tools from XML and JavaScript to Flash, allows BI vendors to deliver desktop-like clients in the more universally accessible Web browser. In effect, BI is on the forefront of the battle between thick and thin clients. It just so happens that BI vendors are adding a lot of user interface muscle to their thin clients so that, like Charles Atlas weightlifters, they don't have to worry about getting UI sand kicked in their faces by PC-based Fat Clients.

BI vendors have been courting the Web browser for the last ten years -- or is it the other way around? A Web browser can deliver BI Reports and output to any machine with an Internet connection. With just HTML formatting using tables, colors, and simple font control, the styling can still be quite a few steps ahead of what can be delivered on even most black and white laser printers. Yet those same HTML reports bypass printing (or allow printing on a few required pages), saving reams of output and speeding up access to data through text search in the browser. BI report output to the Web has seen many advances.

From the late 1980's to the early 1990's, when developing major reporting applications in Information Builders' Focus or in Oracle, it was easy to enhance the output-to-file capability. Thus, in the mid 1990's, the transition to Web output with the appropriate HTML headers and internal tags was trivial. Developers even added logos and background images with light watermark gray dates, "SEP 11TH 1996," for example, in bold across the page. At the same time, BI vendors like Crystal Reports and R&R Reportwriter were delivering charts and graphics to the Web. BI vendors then added sub-report blocks; first in the footers and headers, then embedded right on the page with the major report items. That was quickly followed by output to Excel files and then Adobe PDF -- and it was all automated.

Reports to Excel set a new standard because Excel allowed savvy users to hide columns and rows either by manually clicking with a mouse or with filters. Also the data could be easily cut and pasted into another spreadsheet table for further analysis or graphing/charting. On the high end, PDF output became popular because very high quality reports with embedded fonts and graphics could be shipped over the Web and then delivered by laptop or color inkjet output to decision-makers. The next real step up was customized reports, OLAP output and data mining views, again brought to your desktop in HTML format often as special pivot table applets or ActiveX-aided reports. More recently, Java report-writers like Actuate's new Business Intelligence Reporting Tools (BIRT) open source project are committed to the full set of HTML and Web-based output.

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