IBM i Shops Have Choices When it Comes to Mobile Apps
June 28, 2011 Alex Woodie
Demand for mobile application development tools is surging among IBM i shops, as it is for businesses at large. Luckily, IBM i shops have a wide selection of tool vendors to choose from when making their mobile Web decisions. In this mobile roundup, we’ll explore what the Web enablement vendors have to say about the surge of interest in mobile computing and their approaches to helping IBM i customers.
Mobile computing in the enterprise has come a long way from the bad old days of wireless application protocol (WAP) and wireless markup language (WML), which came to the forefront–amid a good deal of hype–around the year 2000. But WAP and WML turned out to be clunky, and the wireless networks were slow, so the whole mobile thing went into hibernation for about five years, until RIM‘s Blackberry made mobile cool again via email.
The entire mobile landscape shifted dramatically in 2007, when Apple unveiled its first iPhone. The collection of components–a full Web browser, lots of RAM, and a touch-sensitive screen–were pretty modest developments by themselves. But when elegantly packaged together by Apple, this collection launched a whole new way of thinking about mobile. When the wireless carriers upgraded their networks to deliver more bandwidth, the creativity and interest exploded.
One of the first vendors to identify the change in the mobile landscape was mrc, which sells the m-Power development tool. Corporate demand for mobile solutions is being driven by several factors, says Steve Hanson, the vendor’s marketing manager. “First, they realize that mobile isn’t just some passing trend. It’s revolutionizing computing and is here to stay,” he says. “Second, they realize there are many benefits to mobile apps. Mobile lets them stay connected from anywhere, get real-time business data as needed.”
The typical audience for mobile solutions is anybody who requires access to corporate data from outside the office. This includes sales personnel, field workers, and executives. Common IBM i applications delivered to smartphones include order entry, report viewing, and dashboards.
Several big questions confront the fledgling mobile app developer. Should I develop applications from scratch or repurpose existing applications? Which mobile platforms should I target? And should I develop native apps for the platform or platforms, or simply write for Web browsers?
Most IBM i tools vendors take the platform agnostic approach and target mobile Web browsers. According to Hanson, building mobile Web apps that connect to DB2/400 is a whole lot easier than building platform-specific mobile apps that connect to DB2/400. “With web apps, you only need one set of skills. With native apps, you need a whole new set of skills for every platform.”
Another Chicago-based IBM i tool vendor, CNX, reports that 20 percent of its development work involves mobile apps, “which is huge considering that’s up from 0 percent just last year,” says CNX chief technical officer Richard Milone. “It didn’t surprise us because we’ve been watching the sales numbers for mobile devices skyrocket the last couple of years, and it was only natural that it would spawn a need for business apps.” The company recently expanded mobile app support with its flagship Web development tool, called Valence.
The vast majority of mobile apps that CNX has helped develop target salespeople and executives–things like dashboards, order inquiry and field data collection apps, says Milone. Currently, CNX is working mostly on Apple products, including the iPhone and the iPad (CNX is an all Apple shop as far as its desktops are concerned).
CNX espouses the Web-based approach, using a “native device look and feel.” “[These] are easier to develop (and less costly) than native apps,” Milone says. “In the future we may also offer native app development. Particular challenges for some of our customer development projects right now are making the apps work in an off-line mode, which is doable but more complex. We’re working on ways to make that easier.”
Magic Software‘s Glenn Johnson says mobile computing is being driven by several factors, including spillover from the consumer arena, the notion of location and context through GPS sensors, and today’s always-connected business culture. He credits Apple with helping to change the business model for delivery of mobile apps through its AppStore, which he says is driving the use of enterprise mobile apps.
Last month, Magic kicked off a big mobile app push with its flagship application development and deployment platform, called uniPaas. Currently, the software supports RIM’s Blackberry and Microsoft Windows Mobile. Eventually, the company plans to support all the popular mobile platforms, including Apple iOS and Google Android.
Magic espouses the native approach to mobile app development. “Gartner has suggested the rule of threes: any time you have to support three apps or more, three devices or more, or integrate to three back-end applications or more, you need a MEAP [mobile enterprise application platform,” Johnson says. “We allow the developer to create native apps with the native look and feel of each device. A BlackBerry app should look like a BlackBerry app and an iPhone app should feel like an iPhone app. There is no middle ground. Least common denominator apps will be rejected by all users.”
Another 4GL vendor, LANSA, has also been bitten by the mobile app bug. The company recently announced an update to its Visual LANSA toolset that lets developers create Web-based mobile apps that work on every major mobile platform.
Interest is surging for tablet-based computing, says LANSA product manager Madan Divaker. “It’s interesting how quickly the iPad entered the enterprise business market,” he said. “I can understand people using it at home, but it’s amazing how many businesses are looking at that as the way to roll out new applications.”
Today, mobile now accounts for 15 to 25 percent of looksoftware’s development practice, according to Eamon Musallam, the company’s product marketing manager. “The surge seems to be driven by the mainstream adoption of smartphones and the large momentum they have in everyone’s lives,” he says. “Because a large percentage of executives, managers and developers now own smartphones and use them significantly for personal use and emails; they are quickly relating it to how it could improve access to their business systems.”
The vendor sees the most interest for the three big smartphone platforms–iPhone, Android, and Blackberry–but tablet computing is increasing, he says. Most looksoftware customers target just a single mobile platform, Musallam says. “From a development and deployment perspective, it is often preferred that the app is targeted to one platform, but this is often impractical, because the users often already have a mix of smartphones platforms amongst them,” Musallam says. “The biggest challenge is supporting multiple mobile platforms from one app.”
All of these vendors–mrc, CNX, Magic Software, LANSA, and looksoftware–share a common bond in that they utilize IBM i-based backends to drive mobile apps. While many perceive the platform to be “old technology,” what these vendors are doing with the IBM i server shows that this old dog can definitely learn new tricks.
“It’s not surprising that some people just assume they can’t use IBM i servers for mobile applications,” Magic’s Johnson says. “Our competitors in the MEAP market ignore the IBM i. The other application servers that run on the IBM i ignore mobile. So, unless you are talking to Magic Software, and this is our challenge of increasing our brand and capability awareness, you just might not know that it is possible to run a true cross-platform solution with native IBM i capabilities such as the user space, data queue, print spool, command line, DB2400, and of course the ability to compile application logic from RPG, COBOL, etc.”
“Not many of our customers would consider the IBM i as ‘old technology,'” CNX’s Milone says. “We haven’t detected any hesitation to host mobile apps from the IBM i. Maybe it’s because our product offerings naturally attract advanced developers that fully understand the power of the platform.”
Look for part two of this mobile roundup in a future issue of the newsletter.