Upward Mobility: Taking Your IBM i With You
Published: June 11, 2012
by Dan Burger
Discussions about mobile computing in the enterprise are over. The discussions you should be having are about getting mobile computing into your enterprise. You may have noticed employees are already using their personal smartphones and tablets for work purposes, but when it comes to leveraging mobile devices and enterprise data that's a short stick. Getting mobilized means making some wise decisions to get onboard quickly and be prepared for the long run.
It's alarming when you think about how many mobile computing projects are being jump started with little or no direction beyond "We need it. Get it done." Come to think of it, there have always been IT projects that begin the same way. But the differences come down to whether you have any idea the bomb is being dropped or not. With mobile devices fast becoming the "must have" interface to the IBM i platform, don't say you haven't been warned.
At the COMMON Annual Meeting and Expo about six weeks ago, there was no bigger topic than mobile. There were at least three dozen sessions related to mobile integration, mobile application development, mobile devices, and mobile technologies. The expo area was buzzing with conversations about mobile solutions. It was a flash flood of mobile information.
In an article I wrote about three months ago titled Five Handles for the Mobile Application Pot, mobile projects were divided into a five-step process, one of which was assessing skills and resources. To get into this a bit further, I talked with Richard Schoen, CEO of RJS Software and an astute, roll-up-your-sleeves, student and teacher of technology. Schoen presented a session at the COMMON conference titled "Mobilize Your i" that provided advice for completing successful mobile projects involving information residing on the IBM i. And for those of you in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Schoen will be discussing this once again at the QUSER local user group meeting July 17, which will be held at the RJS offices in Burnsville.
Schoen's presentation covers a lot of ground, but for the purposes of this article I only asked for advice about the decision-making process regarding the application development framework. His choice for mobilizing applications for RJS customers may give you a little more information to chew on when pondering your circumstances.
Device Specific-Device Agnostic?
One of the first things to consider, Schoen says, is whether you will need offline access. In other words, do you need your mobile device to work in "dead zones," where Internet access is unavailable? Some would say yes, but Schoen says not necessarily.
When making the assumption that users will always have a Web connection, device-specific apps are not the only answer. Even when there's a total commitment to a specific device and writing apps that run native seems appropriate, the decision should not be automatic. There's still a choice to be made whether you want to develop apps for a single device.
"I see native apps as the court of last resort if nothing else is possible. I prefer not locking into a particular device. We have chosen to use jQuery Mobile," Schoen says about his own company's efforts toward mobile applications. "It's a framework to develop simple HTML applications that look pretty cool on mobile devices. We don't have the staff depth to address every device under the sun."
Keeping It Simple
There's no need to over complicate things. A mobile app commonly consists of a login, a list and search mechanism, a way of viewing details, and maybe some data entry. But most of it is query.
Those steps can be done very easily with jQuery, Schoen says. Although some people will pull the covers over their heads when they hear HTML, most IT Jungle readers can handle it, particularly when it is kept very basic. Walk before you run. You can do advanced HTML programming, but it is not necessary for mobile queries, which is what most people want and is the best place to get started.
"You don't necessarily have to repurpose your existing apps to create a simple query," Schoen says. "Why not develop a mobile app from scratch using your existing language--RPG, PHP, Java, or .NET--the language doesn't matter. With just a little bit of HTML background, you can do this in a day. These aren't large apps I'm talking about."
Inevitably people bring up learning curves about this time in the conversation.
Yes, there will be a learning curve. Someone still needs to know the concepts of how Web applications and a Web server work. But it's not brain surgery. It's not even rocket science. Most programmers have the skills and can figure this out.
"All jQuery is doing is styling to get the look and feel of a mobile app," Schoen says.
His advice is to first of all determine the goal for the mobile apps, then decide whether the company has the staff time and skills to do it. If the addition of a mobile project is too much of a burden on IT staff, companies are hiring the talent from outside sources to get and out and get it done. Those services typically include mentoring and training so that as more mobile apps are phased into the company, the IT personnel are ready to take on the additional projects.
Maybe if IT wasn't so understaffed and under-invested in terms of training and education, the skills and the time to do these things would be readily available. But that's another story.
Mobilizing The Troops
Steve Will, the chief architect in the IBM i laboratory, recently commented in his You and i blog--a regular feature in the digital version of IBM Systems Magazine--that what he is seeing is almost a call to arms with regard to mobile devices.
"This has been a growing trend in the i community over the past couple of years. Most businesses are at least examining the use of mobile devices, and some are mandating that a connected workforce use them. In response, IT shops are figuring out how to use the function IBM i provides, plus additional capabilities of partners and the open-source community, to create interfaces their businesses can use. This is what I call 'mobilizing' their applications."
Ever the IBM evangelist, Will's view of mobilizing the troops emphasizes the capabilities that are within the IBM i operating system, the skills of RPG programmers, and the tools provided by IBM Rational tool set. But he also acknowledged there are many methods and technologies that can be applied to the mobilization effort and that he has heard of projects that have created solutions in days and weeks rather than months and years.
There's no question that mobile devices are changing the work environment. And their use is going well beyond checking email and calling in. The question is whether you are getting business applications ready for your mobile workforce.
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