I was recently involved in a discussion concerning Synergy tools and technologies, and how our customers can best position themselves to take advantage of them. Somewhere along the way, I was asked for (or I volunteered – I don’t exactly remember) my opinion about the current software development landscape, and the challenges that face so many of our customers today.
I identified three areas of concern for our customer base and the future of their applications. And since you’re reading this, I assume that you are a Synergy customer, so hopefully what I had to say will strike a chord with you – either as a challenge you’ve already faced and overcome, or as an issue with which you’re currently grappling.
GUI is King
Yes, you’ve heard it a million times before, but unfortunately you’re going to keep hearing about it until you’ve updated the look and feel of your application. The continued survival of almost every solution boils down to implementing one of two main GUI choices: web technologies or Windows .NET (which means WPF, SilverLight or WinForms).
If you were reading that last part carefully, you’ll note that this discussion is not targeted solely at the *nix and OpenVMS operations; if you’re on Windows already, but are still using the same UI Toolkit displays that your app was using years ago (i.e., you’re not incorporating .NET technologies with the Synergy/DE .NET API), then you’re in the same boat as everyone else.
Arguments about the efficiency of character-based data entry are still valid, but they’re becoming less and less relevant (or realistic) – particularly if you’re using the speed of data entry as an excuse to allow the rest of your application to wallow. While you may have several “workhorse” data entry screens, chances are they make up a very small percentage of your overall application. Information displays, reports, “look-ups” or maintenance utilities have no reason to be tied down to a cell-based presentation.
GUI’s are simply too pervasive and too familiar to ignore, and purely cell-based software solutions cannot hope to compete for much longer. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of your application, the ones who can see beyond the green screen or the pseudo-Windows of Toolkit to the power of your application, will readily agree that it’s becoming more and more difficult to convince new hires (or prospective customers) of the superiority of your Synergy solution.
And I’m not just talking to the Synergy shops that develop vertical applications which are then distributed and sold; Synergy “end users,” the shops that have an in-house, custom-built Synergy solution, need to take note as well. Serious scrutiny of your Synergy application is coming with the next management or executive-level turnover.
Perception is Reality
We’ve all heard the term before, but I think it would be better stated as “People act on perception as if it is reality.”
One of the most common (mis)perceptions in today’s society is “newer is better.” It’s beat it into to us at every turn and in every advertisement, from New and Improved Acme glass cleaner to Next Best Thing flat panel televisions. And unfortunately, a cell-based UI isn’t doing you any favors in this department. Cell-based apps are generally looked at as “old,” “outdated,” “legacy,” or simply (my favorite) “DOS.” It’s this perception that gives rise to a host of other concerns and questions. Interoperability. Reliability. Power.
But perhaps the most dangerous questions are the ones that aren’t asked. If the users of your application generally see it as a throwback to a bygone era, then it’s possible – nay, likely – that it never even occurs to them to ask the right questions. Can it communicate with Brand X’s software? Can it display graphs that give a visual indication of the state of your sales? Does it offer a web service? Does it support ad hoc reporting? These questions are the sales points from competing software vendors, and rest assured that management has heard the pitches – whether it be the CEO at your customer’s company, or the management team of your own.
Remember: Your UI is the gateway to the power of your application. If it looks like something that was distributed on a 5 ¼” floppy, then it’s time to seriously rethink the front end of your application.
Now is the Time to Act
The current recession has made life difficult for almost everyone. Sales are down, money is tight, and thoughts of corporate expansion have been put on hold.
For the past two years or so, companies simply don’t have the money to invest in a brand new software solution, whether it be an ERP package to replace your in-house software, or a glossy, glitzy, Windows-and-SQL-based solution from your competitor. If you’re wise, you’ll look at this period as a reprieve from increasingly heavy competition, and as an opportunity to throw development efforts into high gear.
Use the time to ensure that your software has every last competitive edge when the wheels of the economy start moving again. Take advantage of the lull in sales and expansion, and incorporate the latest and greatest that Synergy has to offer. Put a GUI on your application – even if it needs to be one screen at a time. Use the Synergy.NET API to enhance the look and feel of the most commonly-used screens of your Toolkit application. Make the small investment in Synergy SQL Connect, and set up a data warehouse that can be used by SQL Reporting Services, or open up the data in your system to other commonly-used software by utilizing Synergy xfODBC. Create a web portal, add a web service or two, and take advantage of the APIs and web services of other software solutions to enhance your own.
I want it known for the record that I’m a huge fan of Unix/Linux, and absolutely love OpenVMS, so understand that I’m not advocating a switch to the Windows OS. Remember that you can still take advantage of the reliability and stability of both *nix and VMS backend systems, and just bolt on a Windows GUI client wherever appropriate. Heck, chances are that your users are already using Windows boxes running VT emulator software anyways, so there’s probably no hardware investment that need concern you.
And there are plenty of methods available to leverage your core systems and routines if you’re one of the many Synergy shops currently running a “green screen” solution. Investigate xfODBC, SQL Connect, xfServer and xfServerPlus. Install and play around with the (free) Synergy Data Provider for .NET, and get yourself acquainted with Windows- or web-based technologies, programming languages and development environments. Start cleaning up your code and separate that business logic from the UI components – it may not be as hard as you think.
A little research and a small investment in time will go a long way toward illuminating the path of a better, more robust and more marketable software solution.
Do you agree? Disagree? Have a story that’s relevant, or want to share your own challenges and solutions to the GUI problems or perceptions you’ve faced? Let us know about them, and let’s get the discussion started.