BI has been leading the way in IT n-tier systems for the past dozen years by virtue of its pioneering data integration. But something that has gone less noticed is that BI also has been pioneering desktop innovation -- driving the way information is put at your fingertips. This article examines how key BI initiatives such as Web delivery, portals and personalization are influencing such mainline vendors as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, among others, in what they offer on the desktop.
One of the fundamental attractions of the PC is that it is a general purpose computer with all the basic software and computing prowess (but not OS support plus scale and power) of a large server. In the early days of personal computing, I squandered a lot of time and money on game computers and music machines before finally buying a CPM Kaypro box. Despite its limited 8-bit CPU, 64K of memory and dual floppy storage system, I could run a remarkably wide array of programs from dBase database and Star Wars adventure games through WordStar word processing and basic financial accounting. With programming languages like Pascal and Basic, I could do anything.
A few years later, the Apple Macintosh arrived and changed everything by raising the importance of the presentation layer. The Mac proved that graphical user interfaces (GUIs) could make accessing and using computers and their data much more approachable. What Apple did was raise presentation onto a par with functional processing.
Twenty-five years later, specialized processing boxes like game consoles or music machines, which fell by the wayside during the PC's beginnings, have re-emerged as game boxes, mobile phones, MP3 players, iPods and PDAs. And they are now starting to mix, merge and match into unique computing devices.
At the same time, another dynamic -- the 80-20 rule -- is increasing in importance. The simple fact is that 80 percent of desktop users work with well less than 20 percent of available PC apps. Most users need e-mail, browser, word processing and maybe one to three specialized apps on their desktops. Therefore, more organizations are asking why they shouldn't limit operational costs and security risks, and just give 80 percent of users a simplified client station with Web portal links to their essential applications. As we shall see, this reasoning has been influenced by developments from the BI desktop.
Meanwhile, as one might expect, Apple and Microsoft have strong "we beg to differ" sentiments, as exemplified by their smart clients. Also, Microsoft is pushing to integrate its Office Suite with a wide array of third-party Windows applications plus new Web interfaces to ensure that Windows and Office on the desktop remain a prime center of IT business.
But Microsoft's own Windows Terminal Services, along with Citrix Presentation Server, are examples of Server-based desktop offerings that feature strong central servers and Web browser-based Portal services. And the new rush of user Web 2.0 customizable personal home pages from Google, Goowy, Microsoft, NetVibes and Protopage among others, just confirms the Portal-as-Web-viewer trend. In sum, a new, multi-view approach to the PC desktop is emerging. This approach is strongly influenced by the BI desktop views and operational enablement of users' data, which BI vendors have pioneered over the past 15 years.
BI On The Desktop
When one thinks of BI on the desktop, one often thinks of three things:
BI vendors have been following this portal approach for a number of years. The first portals were client server-based and integrated reports and services in display windows. Early portals used ODBC or other data integration software, plus reporting and graphics, to provide single sign-on and secure views of critical data as part of an executive information system (EIS). But initially, high costs made this tool available to the executive suite only.
The next generation of portals added Web-based windowing or portlets within Web pages with the ability to customize content, including nascent drill-down capabilities to get at underlying data details. Reviews of portals from such providers as Oracle, Microsoft and Business Objects in the late 1990s keyed on such features as dashboards with movable, resizable and customizable browser-based sub-windows or portlets.
BI vendors also added more contingent and dynamic drill-down capabilities. In 2001, for example, Business Objects' Infoview and its Portal Integration Kit (PIK), coupled with SAP portals, went beyond single sign-on, drill-down, and Web-based delivery to add more refined portlet configuration. Sizing, contents, positioning and drilldown states of portal sub-windows became user-customizable and savable between sessions. Users also got to set up and customize links to unstructured data including e-mail, word processing, reports and graphics. Finally, those links could be made contingent on the status of the underlying data -- thus a red link would carry the user right to the drill-down report that showed where operations were under-performing.
By the 2002-2003 time frame, BI vendors like MicroStrategy and Cognos were offering real-time data tied to embedded events, triggers and alerts (so portal users could do effective real-time monitoring and control) or Web-based analysis and design capabilities (so users could refine their own reports and do appropriate what-if analysis right in Web browser-based systems). Also, portal systems from BEA, Plumtree, and IBM began to add messaging and collaboration capabilities beyond e-mail. These collaboration services included instant messaging, calendaring and scheduling. Moreover, BI vendors were going beyond simple customizations and starting to offer automated personalization -- where user actions and preferences determine what items are displayed at the top of RSS feeds, equal priority alerts and other usage-based rankings.
Finally, the latest BI Portals add a whole array of new services, including interaction management that tracks which parts of a portal are frequented most often by visitors, reports those results, and automatically configures the portal to feature those items. BEA, Oracle and others are offering portlet-to-portlet communication, so an alert window can direct the display in a graphics and reporting window. Finally, a whole slew of searching, categorizing and ranking routines are available for users doing work group or enterprise studies.
In sum, BI, along with similar developments in Enterprise Content Management (ECM), have led the way in bringing more integrated and collaborative information-viewing capabilities to the desktop. In contrast, both Apple and Microsoft -- after initially embracing portals and dashboards -- have gone back to a more client-centric approach.
OS Desktop Clients
Both Apple and Microsoft emphasize the capabilities of their OS to automate and integrate desktop operations and applications. Thus, Apple Dashboard, AppleScript, and Automator, though Web-aware, clearly support Apple desktop operations. For its part, Microsoft is referring to its combination of Office Suite, Windows applications, and new Avalon-based Windows Vista OS as Smart Client. Both Apple and Microsoft are providing desktop windowing that they claim is capable of providing richer GUI capabilities than Web-dominated portal interfaces.
There's a bit of irony here, because innovations on dashboard AJAX technologies were proposed or led by Microsoft in the late 1990s. But Redmond did not incorporate AJAX into any of Microsoft's dashboard tools. Instead, years later, SharePoint Portal Services and now Microsoft Vista with Smart Client capabilities carry the brunt of doing Presentation Services on the desktop.
But the desktop remains potent. The ability of desktop clients and apps to work offline as well as online, their inherently faster response times (because they incur fewer network-incurred delays) and their potentially richer user interface components all add up to mean there are attractions to using Apple and Microsoft's proprietary interfaces. And of course, that very proprietary nature of the interfaces is their major downside: Proprietary interfaces mean the application is largely locked into Apple or Windows systems. The other major trade-off is the operational cost and confusion of having to update hundreds if not thousands of desktop apps whenever a change is made to a system.
In sum, not just BI vendors but an ever broadening array of application vendors from accounting tool manufacturers and customer relationship management (CRM) vendors to supply chain management (SCM) software firms are using Web-centric interfaces.
So what is now becoming compelling is the competitive pressure Apple, Microsoft and the proprietary Unix's are seeing in the down-to-the-desktop invasion coming from major Web players like AOL, Google, Yahoo and the like. For example, consider the following services:
Each of these is Web-delivered and based on Web Services. Two are complete "desktop" apps in a browser. Each uses Web portals and portlets customizable by end users very similar to classic early BI apps. Two use Web GUI components already proven in other products like Cognos ReportNet, SAS Viewer or Google Mail. Google Desktop 2 offers extensive stand-alone offline services as well as online operations.
But what's most compelling about each is that hard-won BI desktop lessons have been heeded. Portlets are user-controlled: sizing, placement, and the ability to recall and restore the desktop layout of portlets' last customization on next start-up are controlled by the user. Also, real-time connections through basic Web Services -- as can be seen in Flickr.com and Google Desktop 2 -- have great customer appeal. Finally, interaction-based personalization, which is the state of the art in new BI desktops, also gets notable play in Flickr.com and especially Google Desktop 2. So what users do in the portal determines how the portal adapts to their usage. Users set the parameters and can easily turn off the "personalization" services.
In sum, BI desktop innovations on how to manage the GUI presentation layer are influencing other vendors. The hard-earned knowledge of how to deliver information effectively to an ever broadening set of players -- from top executives through to on-the-line operators -- is increasingly not just a BI preoccupation but now part of the overall fabric of enterprise IT development. For example, the increased commitment to a Web- based interface seen in the new SAS BI Enterprise Suite and the newly announced Cognos BI Suite 8 has been echoed in recent developments from Documentum, Oracle and SAP.
What BI on the desktop has shown is that IT GUIs in general do not have to reside exclusively on the desktop. They can be based on whichever device, network connection or media most effectively delivers information, what-if processing power, and critical capabilities for consensus-building and action initiation. The desktop interface does not dominate, but becomes just one potential solution in a much broader array of presentation layer approaches. Once again, the short ROI feedback loop to which BI tools must strive to conform has a silver lining: BI must stay on top of IT needs and requirements closer and sooner, rather than later.
Jacques Surveyer is an independent technology writer who practices getting the Big Picture at thephotofinishes.com.