March “Break”?Posted: March 19, 2007
This week was March Break here in Toronto for most schools. A week where kids (and their parents) take time off to put aside their studies and work, spend quality time together, and wreak havoc across the city’s children attractions.
Besides paying ridiculous money for food and parking, and standing in half hour long lineups for kiddy rides during Spring Fling (above) held at the Rogers Centre (formerly Skydome), I also stood in equally long lineups at various stores across the city. I guess the same parents decided to run some errands during the day around town as well. At this point I was contemplating renaming this week “March Broke“.
… don’t worry, there is a System i connection below :), keep reading…
One of those long lineups was at an automotive service center. As I finally made it to the service checkout to pay for my oil change, I quickly recognized the classic 5250 interface. Funny thing is, this wasn’t the first time this week that our paths crossed. A couple of other retail stores and a bank I visited had the same familiar green screens staring back at the reps. I felt as though my work was following me around town on my vacation. “So much for March Break“, I thought. But at the same time, I was quite impressed by the system’s ubiquity.
The sales rep raced through the screens with his keyboard at hand. I was curious about his opinion, so I queried: “How do you find the system?”, I asked. After receiving a suspicious glance I quickly followed up with, “I work on these systems myself at IBM”. He then gave a big smile, “Runs great! No problems what so ever.” Wish I can say the same for my car…
Opposed to cars where you don’t see too many models from the late 70′s and early 80′s zooming around town, I can appreciate why the task of modernization may not be high on the list of many owners of these applications. After all, if it ain’t broke…
Later that day though, while doing a bit of grocery shopping the reason became more apparent. The classic interface may be all good for quick data entry by a trained clerk, but future scenarios may not always allow time for user interface training. After I finished collecting my groceries, I decided to play cashier at one of their Self-Checkout counters and save myself another long lineup.
Here, a green screen with keyboard just wouldn’t cut it, I thought. Sure you can get away with a touch screen to improve usability. But a fancy graphical user interface (GUI) is almost expected by customers now a days. The experiences I’ve had with these Self-Checkout applications proved they are not flawless, but this time I managed to make it through all my items without any assistance. Never the less I usually manage to shave 2 min off my time grocery shopping and get to play with a nice looking touch screen and barcode scanner. Woohoo! But what I also did was save the store the effort by checking myself out. I can see why these things are becoming popular. Win-win.
Looking ahead even further into retail’s future…
Enter Radio-Frequency Identification or RFID.
A technology with related devices that have the potential to practically eliminate the customer’s participation at the checkout all together. Simply walk through an active gate and all items in your cart are detected and scanned. Just pay and go. Heck even paying may be via RFID as well. A time when shoplifting may even be encouraged. :)
What changes then are needed by the original application here?
Both these scenarios, and ones I can’t dream of yet will require some changes to the original application. The goal though is to reuse as much of that existing application as possible, and alter as little as required to fit it into the new environment. Much of that change will likely occur at or near the user interface layer. This is why it’s critical to maintain business logic that is independent of its resulting consumer, be it a person, machine, or another application.
WebFacing and HATS help 5250 applications reach new devices (e.g. Web browser) by altering their user interface by either converting it at development time (WebFacing) or at dynamically tranforming it at runtime (HATS), and they do so with relatively little effort. It’s the minimal change requirements to the original application and the speed at which it gets the same application up and running on the modern device that explain the solution’s popularity. But it is important to recognize that while providing a great jump-start, the solution is only the first step in a roadmap to achieving true consumer independence and therefore ultimate reach for an application no matter what future business scenarios it’s faced with. This software architecture nirvana is also know as Services Oriented Architecture (SOA). More on this later.