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Form versus function

Wouldn't a machine touted to be the best in architecture ever conceived also be the best in form? asks columnist, Brian Kelly. Because it is not, the iSeries is often not taken seriously by the computer science community. Nobody bothers looking under the hood if the car is ugly.

The notion of a natural GUI interface to the iSeries as well as a natural programmable interface to the Web via DDS extensions and programming extensions is being debated today in various development and iSeries education circles.

It's about time.

A 21st-century machine such as the iSeries should have a browser-based interface. A bloated, chargeable client as an add-on with half facility, such as iSeries Access via iSeries Navigator, is not the way to get a 21st-century system to be viewed as modern. In today's world, form does not follow function. If there is no form, the function is suspect. GUI is the form needed for the general population to believe that a system is up-to-date. Only then does function get a look.

Function value is much harder to determine than form. However, it does not prevent the iSeries from being eliminated from consideration early in the selection process just because it looks old (form) to those who are doing the evaluating.

Yet if the mission were integration, a high-level machine interface, single-level store, object-based, etc., the iSeries would win hands-down. But the fact is that to be seriously evaluated today, GUI is a must. IBM must understand this and correct this major deficiency.

Personally, I like the notion of a natural browser interface that fires up with the operating system just as my Lynx router fires up. If that facility can be available in a sub $100 box, it certainly should be available in one of the most expensive (hardware-wise) boxes in existence today -- our own i5.

I am also intrigued by the notion of making the Mac OS the GUI for the iSeries. Why not? Can you imagine the allegiance that would come with that? Hey, it runs on POWER architecture. Put it in its own invisible partition and have it drive the i5/OS operating system. Stick a mouse on the system through a USB port and let the Mac console drive the iSeries as its native GUI interface.

Short of the systems look and feel, programmers need to be re-enfranchised with their programming languages. I once said that all programmers would feel that this would be a positive step for the platform. But that was before a few gurus spoke up suggesting that I am wrong. Those gurus know Java cold, and they hold a belief that CGIDEV2 -- a more efficient way of writing CGI programs -- is a better way to handle RPG access to the Web than a natural user interface. I have written CGI, and it is extremely inefficient. I have also examined CGIDEV2 and have found it to be better than pure CGI, but not natural to an RPG or COBOL programmer's normal paradigm.

Just like IBM must do something with the operating system user interface to make the i5/OS relevant at first sight, it must also add device facilities to the HLL languages so that various user interfaces are separate from programs but are callable in much the same way. For example, if screen data today is sent and received via the WRITE/READ in COBOL and the WRITE/READ or EXFMT op codes in RPG, then Web data should be dealt with in the same way. Instead of a display panel, perhaps the user interface could be Java Server Pages, Java Server Faces, HTML or XML. That would almost immediately enfranchise every HLL programmer on the iSeries into Web mode.

The gurus have spent the time to understand the nuances of the underpinnings of the Web, and they seem to believe that such "trivial" enhancements to the HLL languages with natural Web interfaces are not necessary because there is this workaround called CGIDEV2 and there is Java and there is Net.Data, and many other flavors of non-natural iSeries solutions. The problem is that iSeries staff typically have little time to learn new operating systems, new programming languages or foreign methods to achieve simple objectives. Thus they remain uncomfortable with the Web.

George Farr, RPG Development Manager for IBM in Toronto, suggested at COMMON, at RPG World and other venues that the next step in RPG is EXUI (execute user interface). He said it is a natural way to send out display panels or Web pages from RPG without the developer caring. Unfortunately, IBM does not see that as more important than increasing the byte string in certain RPG BIF functions, so the EXUI capability is way down on the list. Non-essential additions to the language are scheduled first.

The most critical enhancement on Farr's list for the iSeries' ability to survive as well as thrive, is the change in RPG to enable natural reads and writes directly from RPG and/or COBOL.

In the marketplace, I see more and more ISVs changing to the only modern platform -- Windows -- to get more business. By not having a real way to enable rapid development in RPG for Web applications, IBM is playing right into their hands. RPG with no Web capability is a dead language. Neither CGI nor CGIDEV2 is going to re-enfranchise the iSeries constituency as quickly as a GUI OS interface and a natural RPG GUI interface.

Brian Kelly retired as a 30-year IBM Midrange Systems Engineer in 1999, having cut his eye teeth in 1969 on the System/3 and later with CCP. While with IBM, he was also a Certified Instructor and a Mid-Atlantic Area Designated Specialist. He has written twenty-three books and numerous magazine articles about current IT topics. His new book is titled, The All-Everything Machine.

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