Mobile computing is defining competitive businesses and market leaders. Don't put mobile off! The race has started.
Most IBM i professionals are old enough to remember catching GUI fever in the mid '90s. With the advent of Windows 3.1, Windows suddenly meant more to business than just playing solitaire and spinning up multiple DOS consoles.
As Windows established itself as a rational business desktop, we started wanting, needing, and fantasizing about creating a new generation of AS/400 applications that offered Windows user interfaces with pull-down menus, check boxes, and radio buttons. Using Windows in those early days gave most of us GUI fever.
Many of us dove head first into the IBM i client/server fray to create the elusive GUI. Green-screen coding, with its fixed matrix of characters and clunky tools, got boring quickly. Our GUI fever consumed us.
A Technology in Search of an ROI
In our quest for GUI, most of us forgot something pretty important: to prove that a true business payoff lurked behind those pull-down menus and radio buttons. ISVs, for which continued use of the green-screen spelled certain extinction, could certainly forge a formula for calculating a GUI ROI. But for the rest of us, GUIs were less about ROIs, improving business work flows, and profitably. Screw all that! We just wanted cool programming toys. (I vividly remember the sobering realization that programming the PC Support/Client Access APIs with Visual Basic was good for pretty much one thing: writing magazine articles).
Many businesses did finally achieve an ROI with client/server-based products. This is especially true as those initial forays into GUI development led to building browser-based applications. Building browser-based apps was an important evolutionary stage for most of us. With browser-based apps, we learned that a non-character-based model could indeed enable better business workflows that did lead to improved gross margins and better bottom lines. But I think it's fair to say that most of our initial GUI fever (ISVs excepted) was less about ROI and bottom lines and more about the early adoption of a technology that we hoped would ultimately provide business benefits.
Along Comes Mobile
Fast forward to today. We all know how popular mobile is for consumers. Google is on its way to a billion Android activations; Apple sold more smartphones in four years than it did Macs in 28 years. While mobile device popularity was first driven by consumer demand, its use is rapidly growing outside that domain. Mobile computing is hot and getting hotter.
Today's business executives are driving the demand for mobile computing in the enterprise. They aren't attracted by allure of the technology like we were with GUIs. They understand that mobile computing provides the opportunity to implement substantial business workflow improvements. They understand the ways that effective mobile computing can quickly improve the bottom line. They know that mobile computing isn't just necessary to stay competitive; rather, it's necessary simply to stay in the game.
An ROI in Search of an Implementation
I've spent a lot of time on the road the last couple of years talking to IBM i decision-makers about IBM i-based mobile computing. It has amazed me how quickly the concept of mobile computing has come into focus for many of these decision-makers. Eighteen months ago, IBM i executives and decision-makers spoke in vague generalities about what they'd use mobile computing for in their businesses. Today, many speak in specifics about which mobile apps they need, why they need them, and how they can produce an ROI for the business. Unlike our GUI fever, which was a technology in search of an ROI, many IBM i decision-makers perceive mobile computing today as an ROI in search of an implementation.
Clarity for All
I was careful in the preceding paragraphs to say "many" IBM i decision-makers have achieved clarity about mobile computing for their businesses. However, just as many have also not yet achieved that clarity. If you're in the latter group, here are a handful of mobile computing points to ponder to help you. There are certainly some generalities in this list; use it for inspiration, not as an absolute to-do list.
- Don't confuse mobile-ready Web sites with mobile apps. For many businesses today, the mobile-ready site is for users outside the organization (customers) and mobile apps are for users inside the organization (employees and business partners). Customers want your Web site on their phones; employees need access to your IBM i data for very focused mobile app uses. You'll probably need both, but don't confuse the two—they'll generally be solved separately.
- Don't assume mobile is easy. Many IBM i shops have spent several years learning Web-based technologies. That's great. However, using the HTML5 model for mobile computing imposes many more challenges and technological constraints than old-school Web sites do. Do your homework about the work required to build HTML5-based mobile Web sites.
- Look for tools that leverage your existing programming teams and their skills. There are vendors today who have tools that can make mobile developers out of your RPG programmers. Don't undervalue this. Properly enabled, your RPG programming team can create mobile apps in the time it would take you to explain the specs to an expensive mobile consultant.
- Don't assume native is best. It's often perceived that writing a native Android app with Java or an iPhone app with Objective C offers a better user experience than creating one with HTML5. That often isn't the case. The high cost of entry (learning new languages and completely new development environments) for creating application-specific solutions is often very prohibitive. You can build great mobile business apps with HTML5.
- Consider offline requirements. Most technologies today that connect your IBM i to mobile devices require a live IBM i connection to work. Factor that into your research if your needs for a mobile app extend to where wireless Internet isn't available (such as deep in a coal mine or the mountain ranges of Montana).
- You'll most likely need new apps for mobile use. We all wish for a magic wand that we could use to put existing IBM i apps on smartphones. However, the form factor of the 24x80 or 27x132 screen simply doesn't translate well to a smartphone. Further, the layered density of a typical back-office RPG program would be very hard to navigate on a smartphone. Part of the value that mobile apps provide is surfacing smartphone features (such as geo location and mapping, texting, phone, and camera) to your users. Old applications aren't written to exploit this info. The good news is that these new apps don't need to be the giant monoliths your existing back office RPG portfolio represents. These new mobile apps are well-focused and have a narrow feature set.
- You may have a need for tablet-based workstations. Tablets and smartphones are both mobile devices, but the types of apps each can run diverge greatly. It is possible, and for many quite desirable, to run existing IBM i applications on tablets—even 7" tablets. When crafting your mobile strategy, carefully consider your users and what they need to do. For example, to enable a truck driver to report compliance with union hourly rules, you'll probably need a new, well-focused smartphone app. But to provide medical professionals or assembly line workers with quick access to existing apps, you probably want to use tablets as mobile workstations for existing apps.
- Shop ruthlessly. Don't believe anything any vendor tells you. Dig and poke and push back. Vendors can craft outrageously impressive demos. Similarly, don't believe anything any mobile consultant tells you. Ask tough questions and research every answer. Your success depends on the diligence of your research. If it's too good to be true, it's probably something a salesperson or consultant told you!
I'm sure there are unique exceptions, but it's hard to imagine many IBM i-related businesses today that shouldn't be seriously researching mobile computing. For most IBM i shops today, mobile computing can improve business workflows in dramatic ways that add value to the bottom line.
The early days of GUIs were fun exercises in possibilities. Mobile computing is defining competitive businesses and market leaders. Don't put mobile off! The race has started.