Look, Ma, 5250 App Access from Outlook, Google
May 15, 2007 Alex Woodie
One of the latest trends in business application interface design is less is more. The fewer computer screens your users need to learn and use, the faster they pick it up and the greater their productivity. To that end, many business application vendors, such as Microsoft and SAP, have started enabling access to ERP functions from within Microsoft Office. Now System i application modernization specialist looksoftware is offering similar capabilities with version 8.1 of its modernization suite.
Australia-based looksoftware is really starting to push the envelope of 5250 application modernization. Over the past several years, look has assembled a compelling base of integrated modernization tools, including its application and database integration component called centric, a Web services generation and services oriented architecture (SOA) layer called soarchitect, an on-the-fly GUI generator called newlook, its lookserver runtime component, and a series of client options for accessing applications from browsers, Windows machines, and mobile devices.
In the past 12 months, the company has started taking these products to the next level with the version 8.0 release of its Dynamic Environment. The company kicked things off last July, when it unveiled lookdirect, a new product that uses IBM APIs to help System i shops squeeze the full batch CPW capability of a given OS/400 server to be utilized for 5250 applications, which are delivered as modernized solutions accessed via one of looksoftware’s client components.
Then, at the COMMON conference in Miami Beach, Florida, last September, looksoftware unveiled offline support for System i applications. By adapting the Transaction Recorder component of its soarchitect tool to record 5250 applications, including their navigation and data fields, looksoftware allowed users to go out into the field with their smartclient-enabled computers, and to enter transactions into their 5250 applications that are uploaded to the system once they get back into the office.
The company did it again two weeks ago, at the COMMON conference in Anaheim, California. It introduced more capabilities–unmatched by other modernization vendors–that have the potential to keep System i ERP vendors on pace with today’s titans of tech–Microsoft and SAP. Namely, with the version 8.1 release of its Dynamic Environment, looksoftware is enabling users to access their OS/400 and i5/OS applications from within MS Outlook or through Google‘s Gadgets.
Support for the Outlook and Google Gadgets interfaces is delivered by first running the targeted 5250 application through the Transaction Recorder component of soarchitect, which then creates Web services interfaces from the code that can be consumed by Outlook or Google Gadgets. Any 5250 screens can be transformed into graphical screens that can be accessed through Outlook or Google Gadgets. As users navigate the screens, which have been refaced using newlook, they are consuming XML-based Web services generated by soarchitect and served by lookserver.
The Outlook interface appears to be the more compelling of the two alternatives. During the press conference at COMMON, looksoftware managing director Marcus Dee gave a presentation showing a J.D. Edwards requisition screen being accessed through Outlook 2007. Users are presented with a folder view of other JDE screens, such as PO controls and outstanding orders, on a sidebar to the left of the main screen, while the user’s Outlook calendar is displayed to the right.
But wait, there’s more. In addition to driving the 5250 screens, users can also trigger events in Outlook, such as starting workflows or assigning tasks to others, creating contact entries, and automatically generating and sending e-mails. Outlook interfaces can be created for any 5250 application, without making any changes to the underlying code, and without requiring OLTP batch and the Enterprise version of i5/OS.
First introduced more than a decade ago, Office is gaining steam as the de facto standard interface for business uses, and users are increasingly resisting the idea of using different programs. “Quite a few of them don’t like switching from their preferred user interface, which is Outlook,” Dee says.
Even the big guys, like SAP and Microsoft, have caught onto the trend. Looksoftware tracked down a recent quote from Shai Agassi, president of SAP’s product and technology group about the interface conundrum. “We thought people would use our portal, but now we realize they want to use SAP in their own interface. People will prefer to retain their current user experience. For the foreseeable future, that user experience will be defined by Microsoft Office,” Agassi is quoted as saying.
Dee hopes that, by more closely integrating System i applications with Windows clients, it will help System i and preserve its relevance as a business server. “Users are pressured to move off the System i because it’s now Windows,” he says. “That’s the sad truth.”
Looksoftware offers a compelling alternative to Microsoft client-side technologies with its new support for Google Gadgets with version 8.1. Google Gadgets are mini-applications that work with the Google homepage, Google Desktop, or any page on the Web. Examples of Google Gadgets include a calendar or clock, a weather page or map, or just about anything, really.
Google Gadgets are used by more than 10 million people every week, according to Google. Since Google hosts the Gadgets and manage and secure them, users don’t have to worry about that. “The best part is, they manage it,” Dee says.
Version 8.1 of look’s Dynamic Environment offers a total of 80 enhancements, according to Dee. In addition to the Outlook interface and Google Gadgets, the company has boosted its support for third-party change management and software testing tools.
The new Outlook interface and Google Gadgets require i5/OS V5R4. For more information, visit www.looksoftware.com.