Mobile Developers Battle Complexity, Deployment Time
December 3, 2012 Dan Burger
It is a simple and irreversible fact that application development teams are consumed by mobile computing. Smartphones and tablets have put the pressure on companies in the IBM midrange community (users of IBM i on Power Systems, i5/OS on iSeries, and OS/400 on AS/400s), where it is not far-fetched to say 50 percent are still dependent on the green-screen interface. A reluctance to convert at least some of their applications to a graphical interface is coming around to haunt them.
Meanwhile, there are businesses, particularly start-ups, that recognize the power of the graphical user interface and that the need to support a mobile computer and the information flowing to them is considerably larger than the amount of data that is being pumped out to the typical desktop computer. Mobile devices are an expected convenience for most people in their personal and lives and are rapidly assuming an important role in the workplace. That eventuality has companies in a race to make their business critical data accessible to handheld devices–giving executives and out-of-office workers the info they need. Knowledge may be power, but convenience is king.
Companies in the IBM i community are lining up to evaluate software and frameworks that can help get data to mobile devices with the least amount of complexity, the broadest range of devices, and the shortest time of deployment.
“I came from an environment where we found it hard to find the time to do what we knew we needed to do to modernize and run a business,” Scott Klement says while sizing up the IBM i landscape. Klement, one of the IBM Power Systems champions and a household name in the IBM i RPG community, has first-hand experience working in IT for the Klement Sausage Company, a typical midsize IBM i shop where running the business puts the squeeze on modernizing applications by adding a modern GUI interface and deploying new technology such as mobile devices.
“When we did find the time, we also found there was a lot of plumbing that had to be addressed to make it work right.”
The plumbing Klement refers to the many details that add to the complexity of a new technology implementation such as mobile computing. Dealing with the complexity lengthens the implementation time and often includes training and learning curves that can be steep. It has stymied many companies and left them in a state of paralysis while time and the competition march on.
Removing complexity through the use of development frameworks is the key to future application development.
“People’s jobs are at risk because of the older interface still being used,” Klement says. A framework for RPG developers to develop modern applications lets RPG developers compete with developers on platforms that are considered more modern. All the modernization vendors are trying to do this. They just have different ways of doing it.”
After many years as an RPG developer and a one-man IT department for the family sausage business, which ran on IBM’s midrange computers, Klement signed on three months ago with Profound Logic, an IBM i ISV that specializes in development tools. The framework that Profound uses and is promoting as the best method for developing applications for mobile devices is based on a combination and integration of RPG Open Access, open source PhoneGap (Apache Cordova), and Profound Logic’s own Profound UI.
The goal is to provide a framework for creating hybrid applications capable of using mobile device features such as cameras, GPS, and signature captures that generally require native applications for the devices. Apple‘s iPhone and iPad require native apps written in Objective C. Apps for Google‘s Android devices are written in Java. Microsoft‘s Windows Mobile devices and Research in Motion‘s Blackberrys have specific development languages as well.
One of the questions developers ask is whether they need new skills to produce mobile applications. They want a drag-and-drop design tool,” Klement says based on what he hears from conversations at IBM i conferences, local user group meetings, and online forums. “They like the idea of compiling code into a display file object just like a green screen would. They like the capability to call it up from an RPG program like any other display.”
“Developers are just learning about mobile,” says Alex Roytman, CEO of Profound Logic. “They are just figuring out the possibilities that include using the native features of the mobile devices such as capturing signatures, scanning bar codes, or taking photos–things that go beyond what can be done in the typical browser.”
Profound has just recently begun to emphasize the mobile application capabilities of its tools, starting with the COMMON Fall Conference in September. Roytman says continual, incremental improvements to Profound UI have been filtering out during the past six months since the flagship product was released as version 4.0 in May. The company now refers to the accumulation of enhancements as Profound UI 4.1.5.
Enhancing the visual designer tool so that it previews the presentation screens on various mobile devices was another important piece. In making mobile application development more IBM i friendly, Roytman says Profound UI goes beyond simply rendering standard HTML output on browsers of varying sizes or simply using the functionality of taking a photo or using a signature capture by also allowing users to upload and assign these images to the DB2 for i database. I would have assumed this was always the case, but that would be a mistake. Mistakes in mobile application development get made every day, so I wouldn’t have been alone in that regard.
Keeping mobile development projects simple and keeping RPG developers involved in mobile projects is better from a business perspective. Although it is a generalization that RPG developers know the businesses they work for better than other types of developers, it is true that working with business logic requires more insight into company operations than development that is concerned with the ease of navigation and the importance of design.
“It is more difficult for developers outside of the IBM i environment to deliver the apps that involve IBM i compared to developers who know the IBM i. No one knows their way around an IBM i environment like an RPG developer does,” Roytman says.
Frameworks are making mobile development easier for the RPG team to stay engaged. Not only does this simplify the development process for RPG developers, it also demonstrates that it does not take experts in Windows, Java, or PHP, for instance, to get a modern interface.