DocPath Picks Up AFP Printing Where IBM Leaves Off
July 12, 2017 Alex Woodie
If you’re looking to do fun and exciting things with your IBM i spool file output, you’ll need to look beyond IBM. With the death of AFP Utilities in IBM i 7.3 last year and the demise of InfoPrint Designer before that, it’s clear that IBM doesn’t want anything to do with printing or electronic document management. One vendor that’s eagerly investing in IBM i output is DocPath.
AFP Utilities was a collection of programs from IBM that allowed IBM i shops to manage Advanced Function Presentation (AFP) content communicated to high-end production printers using the two-way Intelligent Printer Data Stream (IPDS) connections. Similarly, IBM’s InfoPrint Designer product let IBM i shops design variable AFP forms that would be printed on high-end printers over IPDS.
The combination of AFP and IPDS (often just called AFPDS) provided a rock-solid way to produce high-quality content in high-volume print environments. In fact, they still do. It’s just that IBM isn’t much interested in print output from the IBM i server anymore.
The shift started 10 years ago when IBM sold its printer division to Ricoh. Since then, IBM has been steadily divesting itself of print-related software products, and it even let go of the AFP standard itself. The printing standard is now managed by the AFP Consortium, a coalition of 28 industry partners.
What’s left is barebones support for AFP printing in the IBM i operating system itself, says Frazer Dixon, executive vice president of the Americas for DocPath, which is an associate member of the AFP Consortium.
“IBM is providing base support for printing capabilities,” Dixon tells IT Jungle. “But all the fancy stuff, all the really good stuff that you want to do, they’re not spending time trying to build that sort of capability into the operating system.”
IBM’s shifting printing strategy has been a bit unsettling for its IBM i customers, Dixon says. “I think everybody is a little confused, a little worried as to what’s going on, and what’s going to be the next thing that gets dropped,” he says. “IBM is really trying to push people away from managing all of the print.”
While IBM still supports the AFP architecture on IBM i – for now — customers who want to elevate their document output while still leveraging their AFP investments will have to look beyond IBM. That includes distributing documents electronically via email and fax, or presenting a customer with a PDF copy of a form within the same Web browser session that they created the form. It means supporting QR codes, two-dimensional barcodes, and other new forms of communication that are important for business today.
Those are all supported with DocPath’s Boulder Suite, which replaces software functionality that customers lost when IBM killed InfoPrint Designer and AFP Utilities. “The idea is to provide different interfaces, different connectivity options, and to support the different ways that people want to interact with the information,” he says, “and use the IBM i as the backend for that.”
While IBM has killed its own AFP products, that doesn’t mean that the AFP approach is dead or obsolete, Fraser says. However, customers should carefully consider their options and requirements when moving away from AFP.
“A lot of people are moving off from AFP to move to PCL or PostScript. Typically PCL and PDF are the two main languages that most of our customers” use, he says. “It’s easier from a print perspective, and they don’t need an AFP card in the printer or anything like that.”
IBM also supports the Host Print Transform facility in IBM i, which converts the print output from AFP into PCL. “But sometimes you don’t get the document quality you want when that takes place, so that’s not always the best way to go about it,” Dixon adds.
With AFP skills getting harder to find in the workforce, DocPath sees its investment in AFP technology paying off. The company, which is based Spain but has an office in Atlanta thanks to its acquisition of Resolutions, has about 300 customers around the world; about half are IBM i shops. The company works with a number of large organizations that rely on IBM i servers and high-end AFP printers to generate high-quality content, which is then distributed to printers and other communication mediums using the DocPath software.
DocPath and the Swiss company ISIS Papyrus are the only vendors mentioned by IBM on its Upgrade Planning website for 7.3, which is where IBM lists replacement products for products that it no longer supports. DocPath and ISIS Papyrus are listed as replacement product providers for both InfoPrint Designer and AFP Utilities.
That’s not to say that no other IBM i forms management software providers are positioning themselves to capture IBM i customers who are fleeing AFP. Quadrant Software, HelpSystems, InterForm, and other providers of electronic document management and forms overlay software are all angling for a piece of the action from customers who are looking to get away from the IPDS data stream and the high cost of AFP printers.
It’s worth noting that DocPath doesn’t see itself competing directly with these companies. The main point here is that DocPath is continuing to support AFP and advocate for the AFP architecture as a superior alternative to the more basic forms overlay approach.
“There are a lot of people doing forms overlay. It’s OK,” Dixon says. “But if you want to present the customer with the best document that you possibly can – so it’s easy for them to understand the information, it’s clear, it looks nice, it presents your corporate brand well – that’s our aim behind producing a document. And you can’t do that with overlays. You can’t get the same sort of quality that we produce using overlays.”