Together, they formed JJ Able & Company. Both men had extensive experience in using RPG and COBOL to develop software systems for universities, telecommunications companies, and others. Edwards, who worked for IBM in the '60s and '70s, spent 10 years as a consultant for wireless phone companies in the Caribbean, was now ready to build and market his own product. Acy had already developed a combination student ID/on-campus debit card system called TotalCard that was widely used on college campuses. In the late '90s, Acy used ProGen Plus from Business Computer Design as the foundation for TotalCard's green-screen development.
Edwards took charge and drew up the new billing product's blueprint. He wanted a state-of-the-art "convergent" billing system that could handle a bevy of services, including wireline, wireless, cable TV, DSL, paging, and more.
The back-end of this package would reside on an iSeries box and interface with telephone switching systems from a variety of manufacturers as well as with a select group of payment clearinghouses. The user interface would be Web-based so users could easily adapt to its screens. The system could run on a proprietary network or over the Internet, making it unnecessary to buy communications hardware and bandwidth. Browser-based technology also offered flexibility far beyond that of Windows and green-screens. "Most of these telephone companies already had Web sites. We wanted to offer them the ability to let customers come to the Web site, view their bill, and make payments online," says Edwards. "We took a calculated risk. Other developers were offering products with a Windows desktop. We wanted to deliver greater flexibility and offer browser accessibility over a public network for clients who preferred using the Internet. We wanted to win new business by offering the best technology."
Acy spearheaded the search for the ideal iSeries Web development platform and reviewed the offerings of several vendors. He understood that lots of shops used application development tools to extend bits of existing applications like order entry, but JJ Able's project was dramatically different in that they planned to develop an extensive billing package that would be productized and installed in several different environments. Also, if dozens of phone companies were to use JJ Able's product to handle critical billing functions, it had to be reliable and easily maintained.
IBM, Edwards' previous employer, touted WebSphere, but following an in-depth inquiry, Acy and Edwards felt that its use would result in greater expense to their customers and limit scalability. Says Acy, "WebSphere requires a big box with lots of system resources; it chews up lots of CPU cycles. As I tried to get WebSphere to work, I'd get the support guys on the line, type in the function they gave me, and because it would take an hour or two for it to process, I'd hang up and call him back when it was done. Sometimes, I'd execute a command in the afternoon and come back the next morning to see if it was finished."
Because of Acy's experience with ProGen Plus in the development of the TotalCard system, Acy and Edwards took a look at WebSmart from BCD. "In contrast to WebSphere, we found WebSmart to be simple and direct. It requires a lot less processor, so we can run our code on a small box at a small telephone company or a big box at a big telephone company. We were comfortable that it would perform well at all levels."
Acy and Edwards settled on WebSmart to facilitate the development of the billing program's logic and Web user interface. They found a WebSmart application template that had almost all of the functionality they needed and revised the graphics with help from a design expert to accommodate their style-sheet requirements. This template was used throughout the project and saved hundreds of development hours.
Over the span of one year, while JJ Able's partners supported TotalCard customers and worked on other client-centered projects, they made time for their new product, now referred to as JJubillee (pronounced "Jubilee"). "With WebSmart, we developed new programs quickly. Several hundred WebSmart programs interact with customers on the front-end," says Edwards.
In addition to WebSmart's role, BCD's Nexus portal solution is used on employee desktops to organize the workspace and facilitate a secured link to JJubillee applications. Internet Explorer and Adobe Reader are also on the desktop. While WebSmart and Nexus handle the part of the billing system that users see, JJubillee's iSeries back-end is written in RPG ILE and COBOL. "This application talks to the phone switching equipment and credit card processing service. It also does interest calculations, bill calculations, edits, and so on," says Edwards.
Once enough development work had been done on JJubillee to accurately represent its functionality, JJ Able's partners demonstrated it to IT managers at a phone company in Mississippi that used iSeries technology. Says Edwards, "Our first demo was to a company that ran older, traditional green-screen applications. When they saw our WebSmart-based screens, they popped out of their chairs and actually applauded. It was the first time they saw their data graphically displayed in color with drop-down lists and pop-up windows. They could instantly view PDF images of invoices, and it had the other features they had grown accustomed to on the Internet."
JJubillee is presently running on iSeries boxes ranging from a Model 270 to a 520. According to Edwards, "There is no bottom limit because of WebSmart. Our code doesn't require green-screen I/O, so the customer doesn't have to have the interactive feature, which is very expensive. JJubillee has nothing whatsoever that requires the use of the interactive feature."
A Starting Point
So far, seven telephone companies in six states use JJubillee to produce monthly bills for 35,000 service numbers. "This is a starting point," says Edwards. He and Acy are now working on enhancements, maintenance, support, and marketing. "Once JJubillee is installed, configured, and the customer is trained, it runs itself; we get very few support calls. Our product is very stable," says Edwards. "I expect that only minimal support will be required even when 50 companies use it."
JJ Able is in the process of expanding dramatically according to Edwards. "Several people are being hired to handle further development, customer service, marketing, and administrative duties, allowing us to significantly expand our market."
Business Computer Design, Int'l, Inc. (BCD)
Contact: Eric Figura, Director, Sales and Marketing
950 N. York Rd.
Hinsdale, IL 60521-2950