Lack Of Awareness Plagues Free-Form RPG
August 10, 2015 Dan Burger
How could IBM be more successful with IBM i? How about this novel idea: product promotion. For all the money it spends on product development, IBM fails to expand the IBM i market because product awareness remains low. This discussion could go in a lot of different directions, but for today let’s make the focus free-form RPG. This is one of the top IBM i enhancements in recent memory. Why isn’t the IBM i community aware of it?
Beginning with IBM i 7.1, RPG IV coders gained the capability to do completely free-form programs. The benefit of free-form calcs had been part of RPG IV, but free-form coding of H, D, F, and P specs were added at 7.1. This made a big difference in terms of escaping fixed-format programming. Three-quarters of the installed base are at 7.1 or 7.2, which gives them free-format programming capabilities. Yet the awareness and subsequent use of free-form RPG appears to be minimal relative to the numbers of organizations that could gain an advantage from it.
This isn’t Field of Dreams, the movie with the “If you build it, they will come” mantra. Why isn’t IBM successfully marketing free-form RPG? You can’t have change without raising awareness.
Free-form RPG should be spotlighted at COMMON and the IBM Systems Technical University. Both those venues have presentations on free-form RPG. They don’t ignore it, but they put Linux and virtualization in starring roles. That’s great, awareness levels on those topics need improvement too, but both rank lower on the priority lists of IBM i shops.
The 2015 IBM i Marketplace Survey is the best available indicator of priorities. It shows half of all the IBM i shops are concerned about future skills depletion in the IBM i workforce. Free-form RPG is a solution for that. It should be on the strategic road map of each IBM i shop that is concerned about future planning.
There are IBM i executives talking about free-form RPG, most notably Steve Will and Alison Butterill. They enthusiastically carry the message to as many people as have the opportunity to hear them speak. And this isn’t the first time IT Jungle has written about free-form RPG. Check out the Related Stories listed at the conclusion of this article. We all do what we can do, but product promotion should be magnified for something this significant.
For readers who are new to the free-form RPG topic, in brief, free-form RPG puts RPG in the same arena with other modern languages by making it easily understood by those who are lost and incredulous when it comes to fixed-form development languages. As a result, free-form RPG considerably increases the pool of potential developers for IBM i shops.
It’s a fair assessment that most IBM i shops don’t use the platform to its full advantage. It’s debated whether that is because IT staff does not maintain skills in accordance with new technologies because they choose to continue familiar habits or because many of the features are simply unknown to them.
Serge Charbit says free-form RPG is virtually unknown in his home country of France, even though in his opinion free-form RPG is possibly the most important IBM i enhancement in the past five years. Charbit is the chief technology officer and president of SystemObjects, an IBM i ISV specializing in Web and mobile solutions. He says it is his goal to “give to the IBM i (AS/400) a graphical interface worthy of its other qualities.”
“Free-form RPG should be widely known, but to a large degree customers, partners, and even many IBMers do not know about it,” Charbit says. “One out of every two customers faces the skills-depletion problem. These companies recognize they have a big problem, but they don’t recognize the solution exists and they don’t know the solution is not expensive.”
Charbit, who has worked on the IBM midrange platform for more than 30 years, has mapped out his own version of the road to success, which he calls “the rebirth of the IBM i.” The first step is to upgrade old versions of IBM i to 7.1 or 7.2 so it can run free-form RPG. IBM, he says, could use this as a sales incentive for companies to purchase a new box.
“Every IBMer and hardware distributor can solve a customer problem by helping a company run free-form RPG. This is a chance to sell new hardware by making free-form RPG a reason to upgrade. It’s a chance to solve a skills depletion problem that half the customers are worried about,” he says.
At a recent IBM event in France called SummerCamp, Charbit spoke to approximately 1,500 IBM customers and business partners outlining a plan that promotes the use of free-form RPG, combined with a conversion of the database physical and logical files from DDS (Data Description Specifications) to SQL Data Definition Language (DDL), plus the use of HTML5 to create new Web-based applications.
“Enough with the 5250 applications,” he says. “Building an HTML app is faster than writing a 5250 app and it works on the Internet, on mobile, and in the cloud. All the ISVs should be doing this already because in the next 10 years, at least 50 percent of the IBM i customers will be using cloud-based apps.”
So add Charbit’s name to the list of free-from RPG advocates. I’m sure IBM is glad to have another voice providing product awareness. But it’s more than a little infuriating that IBM doesn’t do more to promote it. Slow and steady is one strategy to finish the race, but it may not win the race. In the meantime, more IBM i shops may decide to migrate to another platform because they never knew of a solution to the skills depletion problem.