Bellamy Boosts Sales, Thanks to looksoftware GUI
February 12, 2008 Alex Woodie
First impressions at sales meetings weren’t pretty things for Bellamy Software, a company that develops applications for municipal governments and school districts in Canada. Despite nearly 30 years of honing its RPG-based application into a fast and efficient entity, the face of the product was an “ugly” 5250 green screen–a fact that Bellamy’s Windows-based competitors used to make considerably hay. But now that Bellamy has looksoftware generating browser-based GUIs, the company is giving customers what they expect, and selling more software as a result.
From its headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta, Bellamy Software develops i5/OS applications used by small and mid size governments, utilities, and school boards to manage their finances and operations. The company, which is a division of Sylogist, has been developing its flagship product, called the Bellamy Financial Suite, since 1979. With close to 40 different applications, 3,700 screens, and 15 million lines of RPG, the company has made a substantial investment in the Bellamy Financial Suite, and this investment has served the company well.
However, in today’s competitive environment, there is no getting around the fact that 5250 green screens have been relegated to the dustbin of the IT industry. While the functionality of a green screen such as Bellamy’s interface may be equivalent–even superior, in some cases–to a Windows- or Web-based screen, in competitive sales situations, presenting a green screen to the client is an excellent way to lose the account. Reality aside, it’s perceived as outdated technology. End of story. Get over it.
Bellamy Software knew its product had good bones, and wasn’t ready to ditch the System i platform for a more “graphical” system, such as Windows, according to Ken Shelton, customer service and operations manager for Bellamy Software. “When you look at the stability and the history of security inside the iSeries, we’re happy positioning there. We don’t think it’s hurting our ability to grow,” he says.
To that end, the company knew it had to develop a Web browser-based interface, and to do so quickly. This was two and one-half years ago, and the company’s first foray into Web-based graphical redevelopment was the IBM WebFacing Tool and HATS. This approach worked for a while, but in the end the approach proved too labor-intensive and complex for Bellamy, according to Shelton.
“One of the big motivators for us to go out and look at what else was in the marketplace [was] the high cost for us to maintain that environment,” he says. “It’s more programmatic. It was much more labor intensive than we wanted it to be. We’re maintaining it across 80 to 100 clients now, and we’ve acquired some businesses, so we’re a larger entity now. Trying to maintain that interface across a large, varied install base was very challenging for us, and costly.”
So Shelton set out to look for an alternative to the powerful (but invasive) WebFacing offerings. For a while, the company considered the Web-based offerings from Seagull Software. For many years before WebFacing, Bellamy used the company’s JWalk screen-scraper to paint a graphical representation of the 5250 datastream onto Windows screens. The company also looked into LANSA‘s powerful repository-based development tools, as well as application modernization tools from a couple other vendors.
In the end, it came down to two vendors: LANSA and looksoftware. Bellamy really liked the concept of redeveloping its RPG code in LANSA, according to Shelton. “We liked the concept of reimagining the way people would use the application inside their framework,” he says. They were also impressed with the graphical screen design component employed by LANSA, which was provided by their OEM partner, the Australian company looksoftware.
While Bellamy realized that LANSA would have enabled the company to do more advanced reconstruction of the back-end of its application, it was really only the front-end that Bellamy wanted to work on at that point. Also, the fact that LANSA was using looksoftware made it “best of breed” in the minds of Bellamy’s developers. In the end, the company decided to use looksoftware’s collection of products, including the newlook “on the fly” conversion engine, the centric development tool, and the browser-based smartclient component.
In late 2005, Bellamy started the process of developing a Web-based interface using looksoftware’s tools. The first step was to clean up the company’s RPG to ensure the newlook rules engine ran efficiently. After a couple of months of work on this, the company was ready for the next step: customizing newlook’s default interface with the colors, fonts, and logos chosen by Bellamy.
Once the design was finalized, the remaining work to get a basic Web-based GUI out the door was minimal. Because newlook converts the 5250 datastream to HTML on the fly, there is no need to preconvert the screens. Besides distributing a small component from looksoftware, called the smartclient, to the clients’ PCs, the conversion was, for all intents and purposes, completed.
But Bellamy wanted to take the conversion a step further and rearrange some of the screen elements for the GUI version, and redesign some of the screen flows. This work was accomplished in a non-technical environment that utilized simple drag-and-drop mapping of components in a browser.
Customizing the screen with newlook is a simple and straightforward process that even non-technical personnel can accomplish, according to Shelton, who is not a programmer. He did, however, attend looksoftware training classes and afterwards customized some of Bellamy’s screens. “Out of the box, it converts exactly what we have in the green screen to a graphical user representation,” Shelton says.
“But if I want to move some fields on the screen to maybe collect them in an area that makes more sense, I simply can drag my mouse to highlight those fields, then drag them over to the area I want,” Shelton continues. “I can click an alignment button and they all line up properly. I can do my shading and everything I have to do for a consistent look and feel, just like in Word or Photoshop.”
Similarly, newlook allows multiple screens to be consolidated into tabs accessible from a single screen. “Then, presto bango, I can save it, click a button, deploy it, and now my users are using that same information. It doesn’t look anything like a green screen now, but it all works the same. Hopefully I’ve improved the workflows, and hopefully it looks more attractive and is more usable to the client,” Shelton says.
The third and final stage will involve service-enabling the product using another looksoftware tool, called soarchitect. With soarchitect, Bellamy will be able to publish data and processes to the outside world using Web services. Consumption of Web services–such as connecting a tax application to an external GIS system–is already enabled in Bellamy’s products through looksoftware’s data and application integration tool, called centric.
Bellamy finished its redevelopment process in about six months, and launched the product, called WebView 2.0, at its user conference about two years ago. In the first six months of availability, Bellamy sold WebView 2.0 to 30 customers, which included a mix of existing and new customers. Since then, the company has sold WebView 2.0 to many more customers.
While the company still sells the green-screen version of the software, it no longer presents itself as a green-screen software company. “We don’t even present the green screen anymore,” Shelton says. “But I could probably put 100 clients in front of you that would kill me if I took away their green screen. At the end of the day, for data entry and lookups it’s just fast and functional.”
But new customers want Web interfaces, and that’s what Bellamy has given them, with a little help from looksoftware. “Overall, we’ve been really happy with our decision,” Shelton says. “It’s really rejuvenated our software suite, and I think that’s the highest praise we can give it.”