In the Wheelhouse: Is That the New AS/400?

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We are now in an age where the AS/400 green-screen application interface has become counter-productive. And the name plays a part.


Sorry. It's not the new AS/400. It's not the new iSeries. It's not the new System i.


I now possess two IBM Power S814 servers. As the delivery company was rolling them down the halls and putting them darn near horizontal to get them under the door frames, I heard someone exclaim, "Wow! Is that the new AS/400?"


Absolutely not!


It appears there are familiar traits with this new machine to bring up memories of yesteryear.


Perhaps it's that the size of the new Power Systems rack is about 7 feet tall, and it resembles an old AS/400 machine when positioned horizontally to fit through the door. Nah. It was horizontal for only a few seconds. That can't be it.


Perhaps it's the IBM plate on the top left corner of the box. No, that can't be it. We have plenty of IBM equipment. Those things don't get called AS/400s.


I was quick to inform the user in question that we haven't run an AS/400 in the business for about 15 years. We still have some AS/400 applications, most notably identified by the black screen and green text. We also have some applications older than the AS/400, where function keys like F1 mean proceed, not help. In actuality, if F1 is mapped to a proceed function, then ironically the application is in dire need of help. I'd also argue that if the application relies on a user pressing any function keys, then the application is also in dire need of help. Luckily, we have a new ERP system that is 100% graphical that we'll be rolling out over the next few months.


This new suite of applications is graphical, which I'm convinced will remove any references to AS/400, iSeries, or System i that currently remain in my shop. I've shared a fair bit of education in the last few years to ensure that users understand that we don't have an AS/400, an iSeries, or a System i; we have an operating system called IBM i, which runs some AS/400 applications. We also run many, many graphical applications on IBM i. How do users refer to Sametime? They call it Sametime. Do you know why? It's because Sametime doesn't look like an AS/400 application. And it doesn't look like an iSeries or System i application. It doesn't even look like an IBM i application. It just looks like a modern application. And they call it by the application's name.


The stereotypical AS/400 users' perspective is interesting. They're used to hitting F4 and getting a prompt for additional information. Would they even think of that when they get home and log into an online banking session? Checking, Savings, or Credit Card isn't picked via F4. It's picked using a dropdown box. They see the dropdown and click it with no thought of pressing F4.


One of the AS/400's greatest strengths was that it was easy to manage and use. But that was before the Internet, before almost every single person had a mobile device on which users can do just about any form of computing they can think of from literally the palms of their hands.


We are now in an age where the green-screen application interface has become counter-productive.


How so?


First, it's now harder to train someone to use a green-screen interface rather than a graphical one. For instance, it's not intuitive to use function keys to move inside an application. F3=exit. F1=Help. F4=Prompt. It doesn't conform to modern application standards, meaning most users have to learn rather than interact intuitively. Users expect to interact with a business computer the same way they interact with a home computer. Instead, a green-screen puts them into a time warp where they have to use the virtual equivalent of a slide rule.


Second, it gives users and management a negative perception of the state of information technology within the enterprise, no matter how much you praise the strengths. It looks decrepit. It looks like you haven't done anything with the applications, no matter how much free-form RPG is behind the scenes or how modular or readable the code might be. Sorry. It looks like crap. It looks like you're about to launch an Apollo mission in 2015. Graphical interfaces are a must in order to change a bad first impression or to maintain the perception that we're on the cutting edge of technology.


Even from an administration perspective, and I touched on this recently in another article I argue that you can be more productive using IBM Navigator for i than using a command line.


Once we eliminate green-screen applications, we can make headway toward eliminating the term AS/400 from our vocabulary.


But it's not going to be easy. Some people just don't want to let go.


After the holidays, I was catching up on email when I came upon a number of LinkedIn notifications entitled "Trevor Perry - The AS/400 Insulting Guy." The thread was in the AS/400 Professionals group. (Side note: I'm a member of that group but don't really contribute other than to refute the odd claim that "the AS/400 or whatever IBM is calling it this week is going away and the sky is falling." If you want my opinion on current matters, go to the IBM i Professionals group, my Twitter account, or this MC Press column.) Anyway, the thread was a total hatchet job, attacking Trevor because he shares my opinion on not using old names to describe current products. The thread was attacking the person rather than the argument. It has since been deleted. I think the argument was turned against the person because there's no real argument against using the terms IBM i or Power Systems.


Maybe it's fear of change? I don't think so. Some of the "old-name" advocates write top-notch code and offer GUI solutions. They're obviously not stuck in the 1980s in terms of technical capability, and they're keeping current with new features.


Some, however, don't keep current. I've read a couple of people's comments that they haven't seen any major changes in features since the AS/400. They're either wilfully ignorant or just ignorant. Ignorance isn't a bad thing, however, especially if we're willing to learn. But come on, man. No major changes? That's out-to-lunch thinking.


Some think "IBM is going to rename it again next week, so there's no point in using new names." Well, considering the operating system name changed twice in almost 26 years, I think that argument is pretty weak. And if you consider the brief two years the operating system was called i5/OS, it's really one name change. And that change was about seven years ago.


If you're talking about AS/400 changing to iSeries to System i? That's hardware. Hardware changes. In 2008, IBM removed the "system" concept of a unified hardware/software platform when they delivered Power Systems. Considering System i was the same blip on the radar of its associated operating system i5/OS, it's actually one real name change for the hardware (from AS/400 to iSeries). Since the operating system has been divorced from the hardware, we need to view Power Systems not as a hardware name change but as a removal from legacy hardware of AS/400-iSeries-System i and an addition to IBM's most commonly deployed hardware platform. Aren't we lucky? It's fantastic they'd put IBM i, Linux, and AIX all on the same machine. And yet some grumble about name changes. I guess you can't please everyone.


I have a hunch.


I think maybe a very real reason some people can't move away from the AS/400 name is that they're still working on green-screen applications somewhere. If they're logging into a green-screen and using those function keys, then it becomes harder to separate the old from the new. I think there's a correlation there. I bet the less green apps you have, the more likely you'll view your system as IBM i on Power rather than an AS/400. Yet another justification for modernization.


Keep the names current, just like the platform, the code, and the applications. The arguments for the old names are getting a little sad.