Roambi Flow, a BI publishing breakthrough

My love affair with my Apple iPad continues apace. Despite the me-too products that have flooded the market, the iPad remains the gold standard, not just because of the quality of the hardware (pricey though it may be), but because of the vibrant application marketplace that has evolved around it. And in a market loaded with a surprising number of outstanding apps, a few qualify as, at the risk of using an over-used word, groundbreaking.

Many moons ago (actually, almost eight years ago!), in my now defunct Network World Web Applications Alert newsletter (to sign up for my new newsletter, send a message to I covered a product that still stands out as an example of genius-level conceptualization and engineering: The product was Xcelsius, a system for wrapping up Excel spreadsheets inside Adobe Flash such that the cells of the spreadsheet are interfaced by visual controls.

What Xcelsius did was allow you to attach controls such as sliders, text entry fields or spinners to spreadsheet cells so you could change the cell values in an intuitive way. Similarly, you could attach a display field or, even better, a meter or a chart, to a cell or group of cells that were the results of the spreadsheet calculations. Then, when you changed the input controls, the output controls would present the results in a visual form. It was pure magic! Suddenly dry spreadsheets became animated, rich visual experiences.

Xcelsius was targeted at the world of business "dashboards" -- software tools for the presentation and manipulation of data from corporate resources. The product was acquired by Business Objects which was, in turn, acquired by SAP.

A dashboard created with SAP Crystal Dashboard Design

Click to see: A dashboard created with SAP Crystal Dashboard Design

Today, Xcelsius is known as SAP Crystal Dashboard Design and has been significantly enhanced, although mostly with an eye to supporting SAP enterprise reporting solutions.

But the chaps who created Xcelsius formed a new company called MeLLmo, Inc. and launched a product a couple of years ago called Roambi for iOS devices. In my humble opinion, Roambi is as groundbreaking as Xcelsius was.

The Roambi app running on an iPhone and an iPad

Click to see: The Roambi app running on an iPhone and an iPad

In common with its ancestor, Roambi tackles the problem of presenting spreadsheet data. But rather than requiring what are essentially moderate development skills as Xcelsius did, Roambi takes your data and transforms it more or less automatically into some of the slickest data displays you'll find on iOS devices.

I reviewed Roambi in 2009 (again in my Web Applications Alert newsletter) and I was, at the time, impressed. As I wrote: "It would be a disservice to try to explain the subtleties of the Roambi iPhone user interface - it is stunningly slick and a great example of how to build a truly usable user interface."

I also covered Roambi in this column back in March as one of my top iOS apps for IT.

Allow me to quote myself to explain how Roambi works: "You upload your data to the Roambi site (Excel, CSV, Google Spreadsheets, Crystal Reports, Salesforce CRM, SAP BusinessObjects, IBM Cognos, and Microsoft Reporting Services are all supported) and select which view you want to use (there are several choices including Cardex, a card file view; Superlist, for tabular data; and PieView). Next you can add customizations and finally, publish. When you open the (free) Roambi app on your iThing and provide your account details (the basic personal account is free), your latest Roambi visualizations will be automatically downloaded. (With the multiuser Pro and Enterprise subscriptions new versions of your visualizations are pushed to you in real time.)"

I concluded, "What will amaze you about Roambi is just how slick the visualizations are. You can make selections, drill down, take screen shots and share them via e-mail and create events. Roambi gets a rating of 5 out of 5 (I like this app so much, I'd give it a 6 out of 5 if I could)."

I thought that was about as clever as the chaps at MeLLmo could get, but I was wrong. A few weeks ago the company sent me a pre-release of the client side of their next iteration of Roambi called Roambi Flow.

MeLLmo's Raombi Flow app running on an iPad

Click to see: MeLLmo's Raombi Flow app running on an iPad

While Roambi was a way to publish corporate data, Roambi Flow takes the idea further and embeds Roambi visualizations in documents creating what is, in effect, a specialized corporate publishing platform for iPhones, iPads, and even iPod Touchs.

Roambi Flow uses MeLLmo's on-premises Roambi ES server (written in Java and requiring either a Tomcat or a Jboss application server). The Roambi ES Server can be integrated with a number of business intelligence servers via their native APIs. These BI servers include SAP BusinessObjects and Crystal Reports, IBM Cognos, Oracle Essbase and Hyperion, and Microsoft Reporting Services and Analysis Services. You can also incorporate data from HTML tables, Excel spreadsheets, Salesforce CRM and CSV files.

The Web-based Roambi Flow Publisher provides templates into which you place text, images and Roambi visualizations. This allows you to not only show data visualizations but also include a narrative to explain things like how you acquired the data you're displaying, the analysis process you used, and the conclusions you reached.

So, rather than just distributing glorious standalone Roambi data presentations, you can now tell a complete story. And because Roambi Flow uses templates, you can treat your publications as periodicals, updating any and all content in each one as needed for each new issue.

Recognizing that these publications may contain sensitive corporate data, the Roambi Flow system provides a comprehensive security architecture. You create user accounts to control access and, using the free Roambi Flow iOS app, your users can sign in to your secured corporate Roambi ES server and access your Roambi Flow publications. The ES server also supports device lock-out, remote wipe and remote selective file deletion of Roambi Flow publications, and an optional offline PIN requirement to secure access to publications when not logged into the server.

I haven't yet had the opportunity to build any publications so, for the moment, I shall defer rating Roambi Flow. That said, the user experience is fantastic. This is a whole new take on how to present, package and deliver business intelligence and one that definitely qualifies as groundbreaking.

Gibbs is really impressed in Ventura, Calif. Express your enthusiasm to

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.