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November 28, 2012

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Marc O. Vadeboncoeur

My overall take on mobile computing (smartphones & tablet computers) and its impact on the IBM i development world is that is going to be the catalyst for a major, and extremely rapid, paradigm shift in how we view user interface design & deployment.

Here’s a little iPad-related story that allows me to add some color to my comments:
About 2 months ago, I finally succumbed to the urge to purchase my very first tablet computer, I decided to get my old IBM-blue hands on a spanking new iPad 3rd-gen with that stunning Retina display. I live in Rhode Island and I could have bought it at the Best Buy store right down the street from my office in Warwick, but I opted instead to drive to the Apple store in Providence so I could experience for myself firsthand what the much-hyped Apple retail experience was all about. I walked into the Providence Place Mall on a Tuesday night and the mall was empty, I then walk into the Apple store located in the mall and it was bustling with customers, and, to my surprise, I at 51 years of age was by far the oldest person in the store, I felt like Moses walking into a kindergarten class. The store was filled with folks mostly college-age to mid-20’s, and they were all huddled around the many iPads and iPhones that were on display as demos in the store. As I watched all of these “youngsters” test driving Apple’s magical little gems of miniaturized computer technology, I couldn’t help but think to myself that these youthful folks will view the user interfaces on these devices as the “standard” for how they expect to interact with computers from this day forward.

Now, when those kids that I saw in the Apple store graduate from college and go to work in the business world and become my users, what will be their base expectation when they interact with my IBM i applications? You guessed it, they’ll anticipate something that’s as friendly and intuitive as the iPads and iPhones they “grew up with”. Can I as an IBM i developer create applications that successfully meet that expectation?

My shop has been green screen for the entire 15 years that I’ve been here as we run the venerable JD Edwards World ERP system. We have recently started to make forays into graphical web-based development for our custom (outside of JD Edwards World) software using a 3rd-party modernization suite, and that has been a very satisfying experience. A little over a year ago I had to make a presentation to senior management to obtain the approval to purchase the modernization tooling, and the strategy that I developed for my presentation was to take a critical green screen application that management has been using for years and use the proposed tooling to convert it to a purely graphical web-based app running on the iPad in the Safari browser. I managed to quickly create a gorgeous interface that could be navigated through smoothly on an iPad using only button taps and gestures, even sizing it to fit perfectly in the iPad’s display, and then I showed it to the big boys, and they were floored, and almost incredulous when I told them that it was being ran natively on the IBM i server. The purchase of the modernization tooling was approved.

We are now very close to making a decision to move off of JD Edwards World and migrate to Oracle’s web-based JD Edwards EnterpriseOne, and we will thankfully remain on the IBM i as EnterpriseOne runs extremely well on Power Systems. I attended an EnterpriseOne workshop recently at our regional Oracle office and was surprised, and elated, to discover that every screen of the latest version of EnterpriseOne has been optimized to display flawlessly on an iPad.

My point in all of this? We in the IBM i world have been woefully behind the eight-ball with embracing and deploying graphical user interfaces for desktop computing access, and now, with the mobile computing tsunami suddenly appearing on the horizon created by an earthquake of rapidly increasing smartphone and tablet use, we will fall even further behind the technology curve. I see the proliferation of mobile computing as an emergency “call to arms” for IBM i application modernization as it will further amplify the need for applications that can be players in the mobile deployment model that is now sweeping our industry. It was only a little over 2 years ago that the late Steve Jobs stood on a stage and introduced the world to the iPad and instantly created a new computing archetype, in the short time since then Apple has sold roughly 100 million iPad tablets, not to mention the millions of tablets and smartphones sold by other manufacturers as well.

Those college kids that I saw in the Apple store are going to be all our users soon. We need to get charged-up and create user interfaces on IBM i that will make them view the system as what it is, a modern state-of-the-art business computing platform, and giving them a telnet app to run a DDS-based green screen program on an iPad or Android phone isn’t going to accomplish that.

Nathan M. Andelin

Great post, Marc. A bit sobering how the IBM i platform and our careers could become perhaps more marginalized if we were to not take the move to mobile computing seriously. Support for mobile computing represents a great opportunity.

Jon Paris

@Mark Thanks very much for your comment - exactly the kind of story we like to hear. Perhaps the folks at the magazine reading your comment would be interested in writing up your experiences.

Evelyn

Marc, I am executive editor for the magazine. If you're interested in talking with us about your story, please email me at ehoover@msptechmedia.com. Thanks!

Scott Klement

@Marc: I agree -- but also that this is not something that began with mobile.

I had a similar revelation, and noticed similar reactions nearly 20 years ago, during the Windows 3.1 days. Of course, back then people said green screen looked 5 years out of date. Now it looks 25 years out of date, so seems a bit more urgent... but it's the same thing.

We look like fools if we continue to code green screens. And, many, many people are out of a job because of the fact that they didn't move up to a new display interface.

I'm glad that you were able to convince your management to let you try a 3rd party tool. IMHO, these are the best solutions out there right now (this is why I, recently, sought a job with one of them -- Profound Logic -- and was fortunate enough to be hired. I'm very happy to be working in this space!)

Frankly, we can do all of this without 3rd party tools if we want to. We've been able to write modern GUI programs in RPG for ages now -- the problem is that without the 3rd party tools, it's not as easy, so people don't do it. (With the tools, it's just as easy, though -- maybe even easier than green screen, and certainly more powerful!)

Our situation is sad: But it's not a limitation of the platform or language. The limitation is the people who are writing/updating the apps, who aren't willing (or can't get approval) to modernize.

I think your message about showing the 3rd party interface running on IBM i, and how it "floored" the execs is a very positive message. Glad to hear it.

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