Mobility Is The Motivator For Green-Screen Migrations
February 25, 2013 Dan Burger
IBM i shops are moving to greener pastures. It’s a migration, but it’s not the one that demonstrates the platform is dead, like some folks have been claiming for longer than a generation of young programmers has been sleeping in their own beds. Those pastures are greener because green-screen applications are steadily being left behind. And the migration within the IBM midrange user base has quickened as a direct result of mobile computing.
It is no more surprising than moving mountains.
“The majority of customers we deal with have mobility as a significant part of their requirements going forward,” I was told last week by Brendan Kay, CEO of looksoftware, one of the many IBM business partners with a product strategy that involves modernizing old RPG applications as well as developing new apps. “Twelve months ago it was more of a fanciful wish. Now it is among the top two or three things on their lists of things they need. I’m not saying 90 percent of the shops are ready to implement mobile technology, but a lot of companies are.”
Obviously, a high percentage of the companies looksoftware engages are pretty eager to: a) implement mobile technology; b) modernize green-screen applications; c) develop new applications using browser- or Web-based methods; or d) all of the above. That’s a motivated segment of the IBM i user base and not representative of the IBM i community as a whole. However, it still seems to accurately portray a trend: mobility drives application modernization.
Don’t, however, take that as a black-and-white statement. As Kay pointed out in our conversation after the OCEAN user group meeting at National University in Costa Mesa, California, there are cases when mobile comes before any attempt at application modernization. But it’s still fair to say mobility drives modernization, even when mobility is not always what has to be delivered in the first phase.
The newest development Kay sees is a growing frustration from people disconnected from their applications. That has increased independent of modernization, he says. “We hear from customers who would be OK with just making a green screen available on a mobile device. That’s not the path forward that we recommend, but it has shown me that sometimes mobility is a bigger driver than the graphical interface and modern navigation that comes with modernization.”
Another reason that companies are motivated by a project that makes mobile computing available is because the business value is easier to quantify than looking at a modernization plan without the mobile element. The frustrations of some users who dislike working with green-screen applications is often not enough to dictate change, unless a good business case can be made. That has not been the case even though arguments have been made for years that Windows-based apps can bring productivity gains when tabs and other navigation features are brought into play along with the shorter training time required when hiring new employees.
That is not to overlook the skills of some very good heads-down data entry people who can fly through green screens.
It is a fact, however, that gradually over the years there are fewer companies with people doing heads-down data processing. Electronic data interchange is chipping away at the walls of the data-processing prison and eventually there will be a jailbreak.
Mobile device selection was a topic that the looksoftware CEO was also happy to discuss with me. I was curious to hear what the IBM i community was adopting and if there were any clear-cut favorite deployments. The mobile product strategy at looksoftware is built around the use of HTML 5, which Kay says was chosen because it fits with the company’s multi-channel, device agnostic approach that accommodates both tablets and smartphones without being tied to a particular device or operating system.
Tablets have brought a higher degree of practicality to mobile technology, which has fueled greater interest, based on Kay’s observations of the IBM i community. “Things no one would not have thought of doing on a smartphone are being done on tablets. Smartphones now contain a subset of tablet functionality in cases where both devices are being used. The key requirements are on the tablet, while the look-ups and monitoring of orders or business processes are typically part of the smartphone functionality.”
Apple is dominant in the tablet space, Kay says, but Google Android-based tablets are significant. When mobile projects include tablets, close to 50 percent chose Android, but about half of those who start a project with Android tablets switch to iPad after testing with end users.
Smartphone selection is pretty evenly split between iPhones and Android-based options. Microsoft Windows Phones and Blackberrys are seldom seen, although Kay believes that technically they are both very good.
“Windows Phone may be too little too late,” he notes. “And it’s yet to be determined whether patent problems could cause problems for Android. People who use Android phones are very happy with them. I’ve heard positive feedback from both Android and Apple iOS platforms. Android users, from my viewpoint, are using their phones less widely in terms of web use and app use.”
There remains a debate over whether native apps–specific to the device–are the better way to develop programs than a Web-based approach, which allows programs to render on multiple mobile devices as well as any workstation with Internet access.
Kay says native apps appeal to some companies, but a better strategy (the one looksoftware advocates) allows companies to “go with the ebbs and flows” of mobile device popularity.
“Some people are doing native apps, but a better strategy is one that allows you to go with the ebbs and flows of technology because things have a way of changing and I’m not clairvoyant. Our mobile strategy is based around HTML 5 development that is coherent with whatever happens on the individual devices down the road. You have to be aware of the product roadmaps of each device.”
Every device and operating system has strengths and weaknesses. (Think IBM i running on Power Systems and Windows running on X86, for example.) There are risks that have to be weighed in every decision. Developing for a specific mobile device could mean having to rethink that decision later and possibly having to re-engineer some applications.
The greatest similarity between native apps and Web-based apps is that both require investments in time and money. There are not excessive amounts of either these days, but money for projects that can capture the elusive return on investment can be easier to find than the time to implement them. Almost every software company has increased the size and scope of its services and looksoftware is no different. It has expanded its services offerings through its existing partner network of companies that sell the looksoftware products.
“Most of our clients use them to some degree,” Kay says. “Some use them almost exclusively, while others use them for guidance and mentoring. We have added services so people have access to the skills they need in order to be successful with our products without becoming experts in mobility, devices, operating systems, HTML 5, all those things.”