Attachmate Brings Full-Function Emulation to Mobile Devices
March 18, 2014 Alex Woodie
If the TN5250 products you tried with your iOS or Android device left you feeling sad and frustrated, you might want to check out the latest release of Attachmate‘s Reflection suite. The company is now providing mobile touchscreen devices with the same type of emulation experience that customers are used to getting from a full Windows-based TN5250 product. The new TouchUX interface should add convenience when entering data, while the new SmartUX API will allow developers to extend functionality with buttons.
The TN5250 and TN3270 products you see on the app stores don’t bring much value to the users, according to Attachmate product marketing manager Kris Lall. “If you go to the Apple App store and download an application that connects you to 5250 or 3270 hosts, you notice that you really don’t get much functionality because the ISVs are building these apps from scratch,” Lall tells IT Jungle.
“Let’s say want to input on the iOS device a PF [program function] key or a PA [program application] key on an IBM host screen. You can’t do that with the default iOS keyboard,” he says. “What we do is we provide an alternative keyboard for that so you get all the keys you’d expect to see in an AS/400 or mainframe application.”
This little trick of technical wizardry was made possible using the Xen Receiver emulation software from Citrix. Instead of rewriting the core of the Reflection suite to run on Android or iOS, the company is relying on the Citrix emulation software for Windows, including the ICA protocol that used to be packaged under the MetaServer brand. Xen Receiver is a relatively new offering that extends the Windows emulation environment to Android and iOS devices, and therefore provides a bridge to enable all (or at least many) of Reflection’s Windows-based functions to be accessible from these non-Windows touchscreen devices.
“Reflection by its nature is a native Windows application, so to rebuild that on a non-Windows platform takes a lot of investment,” Lall says. “We’ll also have native solutions down the road. But what you really get with the Citrix solution is full-function terminal emulation.”
Reflection 2014 also supports Microsoft Windows 8.1. Customers who want to use Reflection 2014 on Windows 8 mobile devices don’t need the additional Citrix components, which will free up a bit of bandwidth on the company’s LAN or WAN.
TouchUX refers to a set of features in Reflection 2014 that enables users to get the full TN5250 and TN3270 experience in a touchscreen device–predominantly Android and iOS tablets, Lall says, as smartphones simply don’t have the necessary screen real estate to run emulators in any kind of useful capacity.
A lot of that TouchUX experience revolves around delivering a full IBM keyboard, “instead of the standard iOS keyboard, which really doesn’t have many keys on it and certainly doesn’t allow you to interact with a host application in its default mode,” Lall says. “With Reflection 2014, we’ll replace that keyboard and [enable you to] interact with the host application with all the keys you need.”
Making everything touch-enabled is another part of the TouchUX experience. “We want to be sure that, when you’re trying to enter data in your host screen, it’s not cumbersome,” Lall says. “All the stuff we’re doing in TouchUX really makes it seem like your AS/400 application feels like a native mobile application.”
The company also debuted its SmartUX controls with this announcement. The SmartUX API is designed to help developers customize their mobile Reflection environments, just as 16- and 32-bit HLLAPIs, Visual Basic Application (VBA) APIs, and .NET APIs did for earlier versions of the product.
“Let’s say your AS/400 application doesn’t have a button for automating a certain task, and you want a button and that task,” Lall says. “A developer can add a few lines of code using the SmartUX API. When the user uses that application, they just click on that button, and it takes actions and automates that workflow–or whatever thing you’re trying to do. In the Smart UX feature set, there are five additional controls you can add to a mainframe or AS/400 application, and over time we’ll add more.”
Reflection 2014 marks the first time that Attachmate has delivered support for touchscreen mobile devices with its flagship emulation suite for IBM i, mainframe, and Unix hosts. The company has previously delivered mobile app support with its Verastream product, as part of the launch of its “MobileNow” initiative in early 2013.
But the Verastream 2014 enhancements were geared toward converting host screens into HTML interfaces for consumption on mobile devices, and not enabling users to access unmodified 5250 and 3270 screens on mobile devices. Despite the negative perceptions of green-screen applications, many big enterprises continue to rely on them, and will use them for years to come.
Attachmate may be a little late to the mobile party, and that seems to suit the Seattle, Washington, software company just fine. It’s one of the big dogs in the world of 5250 and 3270 emulation, second only to IBM itself in that department. It has a lot of big enterprise customers in healthcare, financial services, government, and other industries to keep happy, and a big legacy codebase that it’s not about to muck around with. The company could have thrown together a native or Web-based TN5250 product and let users have at it via the app stores. But the company decided to bide its time instead.
With that said, Attachmate is venturing down the native mobile application rabbit hole–albeit at a slow and cautious pace. You can expect that pace to pick up, and we might even see the first native apps from Attachmate toward the end of 2014.
Reflection 2014 brings several other notable enhancements, including support for Java 7, support for Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol version 1.2, and support for SHA-256 digital signatures. The software also borrows the token authorization functionality from Attachmate’s Reflection Security Gateway 2014 product to provide end-to-end encryption and centralized identity management and access control.