Technology press, pundits, analysts, and bloggers have been churning out billions of bytes of copy extolling the virtues of virtualization and cloud computing for years. Both technologies have revolutionized IT, yet both have also been surrounded by massive amounts of hype and marketing speak. I’m not arguing that virtualization and the cloud don’t deserve most of their accolades, but the unrelenting hype-machine fog-generator for these two technologies unintentionally obscures some other promising technologies. They’re like two A-list celebrities that suck all the attention and oxygen out of a room, often at the expense of other promising new talent. I’d argue that one of the promising new IT technologies not getting its due is business intelligence (BI), which has been growing in both market penetration and capability over the past few years.

BI isn’t new; it has actually been around for years (see “What’s Next for the BI Market,” for a historical perspective), dominated by massive vendors like IBM, Oracle, SAP, and Microsoft who have managed to gobble up smaller BI vendors like Business Objects (acquired by SAP in 2007), Cognos (acquired by IBM in 2008), and Hyperion Solutions (acquired by Oracle in 2007). MicroStrategy, SAS, and Information Builders are other prominent standalone BI vendors.

Traditionally, BI has required IT departments to work with one of the aforementioned mega-vendors to install a BI platform that integrates with an existing infrastructure, then gets access to relevant data sources that provide meaningful business information. For example, a retailer with massive amounts of customer, inventory, and sales data can use a BI solution to generate reports and information to help business leaders make meaningful business decisions. BI can be a vital, useful tool for those that could afford it, but small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs) often went without.

Now a number of forces are disrupting the BI market, with new players providing Software as a Service (SaaS) BI solutions that take advantage of the cloud and mobile devices to give a wider assortment of customers access to the benefits of BI. Traditional BI deployments can often have imposing installation and maintenance costs, and the in-house IT department might not have the skills and resources needed to effectively implement an on-premises BI solution. I’ve blogged a bit about how quickly SaaS BI is growing, but the continuing inroads being made by mobile devices (particularly the iPad) are flooring the accelerator for that trend. It seems that low-cost, cloud-powered, self-service BI solutions—with information delivered directly to stakeholders via a mobile device—are a powerful development in the once stodgy BI space, and these solutions promise to deliver real business value into the hands of customers.

Patrick Oates, CEO of Wine Management Systems (WMS), is leading a company that's a perfect example of how the cloud, self-service BI, and an increasing trend toward applying BI to very vertical markets can pay dividends. I interviewed Oates a few months ago, and his comments sum up what I believe is the “killer app” potential of mixing the cloud, BI, and mobile devices:

“The wine industry historically has not been very technology minded,” says Oates. “We traditionally have had to do a lot of explaining about how technology can impact the wine business. We’re essentially delivering a SaaS product, and the iPad has been a great tool for uswe’re the only [winery BI] service that can be used with an iPad.” Oates praises the iPad for its wireless connectivity, “instant-on” operation and for giving customers a mobile device that can easily be used on the go. Non-technical users can intuitively access WMS services using a web browser and the iPad touch screen, without having to lug around a heavier laptop.

A flood of vendors have entered the SaaS BI market in recent years, including Actuate, Birst, GoodData, Host Analytics, QlikView, Oco, Panorama, and PivotLink, while larger BI players like IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, and MicroStrategy are introducing products to take advantage of the move toward self-service BI. And all of them are racing to get a larger presence on smartphones and connected tablets.

Like virtualization and the cloud, this new wave of BI solutions is surrounded by some myths and overstatements. For example, SaaS self-service BI isn’t a fit for all situations, and it absolutely won’t remove the need for smart IT professionals to help business stakeholders get the most out of the solutions they deploy.

However, the trend toward giving business owners powerful new ways to collect, view, analyze, and act upon their own business data is a welcome one. All of these developments are helping drive down the once prohibitive cost of BI solutions and broadening use of technologies that can make all businesses and organizations more agile, efficient, and responsive.

Have some business intelligence thoughts of your own to share? Send your advice and suggestions to me via email at jeff.james@penton.com, and/or follow me on Twitter @jeffjames3.