Mobile Apps And The IBM i Fear Factory
August 17, 2015 Dan Burger
“It can seem scary when you look at all the different mobile devices and wonder how to develop something that works for everything.” Those are the words of mobile application developer Nick Hampson. Fear of the unknown is a powerful preventative. It’s not a happy place, especially if your job is to create mobile business applications for an IBM i-centric organization. Rid yourself of this anxiety right away.
“I think the real stumbling block for IBM i people–if they are coming from SEU and PDM–is that there are completely new skills. It’s quite muddy for people to see. I talk with programmers about the user interface and user experience, which is a purely technical capability. It’s laying fields out on the screen, similar to SEU, but with different technologies and different thought processes. But it’s still a left brain programmer’s skill,” Hampson said during a conversation we had at the COMMON Annual Meeting and Expo, back when the summer was still ahead of us. By my count, there were more than a dozen educational sessions focused on mobile computing at COMMON. Obviously, there’s considerable interest in vanquishing the mobile development boogeyman.
“When you say ‘user interface,’ a lot of developers think that means graphic design. And most developers are bad at color and images. That’s a right brain thing,” Hampson said.
It’s great food for fear. It makes developers nervous. And when developers get nervous, they eat too many donuts. When they eat too many donuts . . . well, I think you know where this is going. It doesn’t end well.
The good news is that tools for developing mobile apps have become much easier to use. The use of templates has removed much of the mystery involved with creating graphically pleasing application design. You’ll find a lot of tools and technologies separate the template (the design) from the content. A developer, or someone else in the organization, who understands the corporate standards for colors and images can build professional mobile apps using templates. Developers can do what developers do best–concentrate on laying out individual screens. Graphic design is much easier for developers than it was in the past because templates have taken some of the design work off the developers’ plates.
Most fears of new languages are based on stories of how Java stole seven years of someone’s life. What you’ll find is not an IT house of horrors. Web languages will not suck your blood. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way.
“There is still plenty to learn for these guys who are used to 24 x 80, 13-inch screens who now have a much smaller screen size on which apps are displayed. That’s still perceived as a barrier that can seem to be overwhelming. But, in reality, developers don’t have to worry about exact sizes. Things scale and adjust to screen size,” Hampson noted. “The Web has helped a lot. The IBM i developers can stand on the coattails of the entire Web community, where a lot of people are driving technology.”
Hampson first ventured into mobile business app dev in 2006, when businesses weren’t doing much with mobile devices for good reason–the devices and the apps were terrible to use. It was about 2008 when smartphones actually became smart. That’s when businesses started taking a look at mobile. There was a spike in interest, Hampson recalled, but not a huge spike in businesses working on mobile projects.
“It was 2010 before IBM i businesses were ready to do something on mobile. The IBM community is not interested in the flash in the pan. They want to know it’s not going to disappear before they get on board with it. In 2011, the iPad came out and everybody in business saw this was the way of the future and the trends started going in this direction.
“It has picked up to the point where we are seeing some people who are not just adding mobile, but are replacing desktops with mobile. That’s only a few people at the moment. But we are seeing some of the early adopters of mobile replacing desktops.”
From the beginning, Hampson has worked with IBM i RPG application developers on developing Web and mobile apps. He emphasizes a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and value as motivation.
“Telling people they don’t have all the skills is hard, because IBM developers are used to having all the skills. They are multi-faceted. They are database admins. They do testing, QA, development, and are business analysts. They are used to knowing all these things. To say they need a new skill is hard.
“My biggest failure over the past 15 years is not getting some IBM i developers to understand they can do this. But I’ve also had successes with many people.”
Because the widely accepted standard for UI excellence is very high on a mobile device, it adds an intimidation factor.
Hampson drew a parallel with the IBM common user access (CUA) standards for user interfaces that were established in 1987.
“They were really good standards. They later became the basis of GUI guidelines and the Apple interaction guidelines,” he noted. The essence of this standard is that laying out screens cleanly, without putting too much info on the screen, makes it easier for users.
Just as the vintage CUA standards still apply today, there are other pieces of the past that are better forgotten. One of the factors that led developers away from this advice was the three-second response times, which were once the norm.
“That made people want to put everything on the screen so the waiting was minimized. Now there are 30 millisecond responses. But the mentality of putting as much as possible on the screen persists. A better way to go about this is one panel, one function. Especially with mobile, the design must emphasize simplicity,” he cautioned.
A final word of advice: Develop mobile app to standards for consistency and professionalism. And always keep in mind your purpose is more than just turning green on black to gray on white.
And for the record, Nick Hampson is a product evangelist for looksoftware. His home is in the United Kingdom.