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6/20/2011
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How Information Builders Battles BI Goliaths

A hybrid mobile app, data-visualization upgrades, and unsung add ons bolster the vendor's business intelligence suite.

Some industry analysts (not I) once predicted the death of pure-play business intelligence vendors as a consequence of mega-vendor consolidation in 2007 -- the year SAP acquired BusinessObjects, Oracle acquired Hyperion and IBM acquired Cognos. Yet Information Builders is thriving, with a loyal customer base, continued innovation and reported double-digit revenue growth.

At Information Builders' annual user conference in Dallas last week, company president and founder Gerry Cohen demonstrated new capabilities of the vendor's upcoming WebFocus 8 release, including a more intuitive interface for business users, developers, and system administrators. All modules of the suite will feature Microsoft-style ribbon interfaces, a design Information Builders first introduced in its InfoAssist business-query tool a few years ago.

Consistent with the buzz at many recent BI conferences, a mobile release also made it to the main stage, but with a twist -- a novel blending of Web and native apps. As I wrote in this article, Information Builders mostly relies on a Web app for mobile BI. The Web app automatically determines which device is being used to access dashboards and reports, then renders that content either in HTML5 for an iPad or in Flash for Blackberry Playbooks or Android tablets.

The appeal of a Web app is that reports don't need to be rewritten for particular devices and more functionality. However, performance and usability is often inferior to native apps.

In its blended approach, Information Builders offers a device-based Mobile Faves app for the iPad and iPhone. With Mobile Faves, users can save reports and dashboards to the device (with security required to access the WebFocus server); if the dashboards are saved using Information Builders' portable Active Technologies report format, then users can continue to filter, change the chart type, and add calculations in off-line mode. Native iPad touch, tap, and pinch gestures are all supported. It's the first I've seen a vendor blend both Web- and device-native app approaches in a rather seamless way.

An updated VisualDiscovery module (an OEM-sourced product from Advizor Solutions) was also unveiled during the keynote. Information Builders has sold this product for years, but it has had limited customer adoption. I suspect the recent buzz seen by specialty vendors Tableau, TIBCO Spotfire, and QlikTech, all of which offer rich data-visualization capabilities, has increased interest in this product; a hands-on demo lab for this product was standing room only at the event.

The VisualDiscovery upgrade integrates the InfoAssist module, moving what is now a developer- and desktop-centric design to a more business-user, Web-authoring workflow. VisualDiscovery has some compelling interactive data visualizations, but the visual design process is not as intuitive and automatic as in either Tableau or Spotfire, or in the newer tools I've seen from MicroStrategy and IBM Cognos.

Information Builders has been innovative, but they could do a better job at communicating their innovations. For example, as I talk about in my "Cool BI" classes and webinars with TDWI, the convergence of social networking with BI is certainly promising in bringing decision makers together. It was only by chance, then, that I stumbled across Information Builders' planned integration with Salesforce Chatter and SAP Streamwork, which is due out next month.

One thing that Information Builders does not like to talk about, but that customers do, is the WebFocus language. It's a differentiator that lets customers build robust reporting applications, bypassing some of the limitations of SQL that can hinder other BI tools.

The vendor says too many industry analysts and competitors like to use the Focus language as a scare tactic, suggesting that the vendor's suite requires coding; it doesn't. But as one customer explained, "it's nice that I have an option for reports with complicated logic." In this regard, many of the reports built in WebFocus are not just reports, they're highly interactive applications.

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