Clif Notes: What is the Sound of One Hand Crumbling?

Unless this is only the first or second of these columns you have read, you are already aware that one of my hot buttons is getting rid of the green screens in our MultiValue applications. I have repeatedly made the point that having the most visible part of our applications using an antiquated approach to user interfaces is not just an embarrassment — it is probably a major contributing factor to why non-technical upper management kicks the MultiValue system to the curb (and the MultiValue developers along with it) and replaces it with something more "mainstream." If it looks like a dinosaur, waddles like a dinosaur, grunts like a dinosaur, well then, it must be a dinosaur.

So of course, it was with great pleasure that I edited Kevin Kings article about telnet. By the time I had finished reading his sardonic comments about green screen terminal emulators, I was chuckling (well, more like cackling) with mildly sadistic glee.

And then I got to Lee Burstein's article about breakthrough applications. Going through that piece definitely sobered my mood. While reading it, I found myself thinking that for at least the last year or so, I have been wrong about the importance of getting rid of the green screens. The situation is not as bad as I have been preaching.

It's worse.

In the Information Consumer's eyes, the green screen is already a distant memory. Every application worth using has been GUI-based for several years (in their minds). Now, it's all about mobile access. It started with the smart-phones, gained momentum with Apple's introduction of the iPhone, and has literally exploded since the introduction of the iPad. (I am not dissing the Android-based phones or the new non-Apple tablets. Apple happened be on the bleeding edge of mobile and set the trend.)

Your customers, both external and internal, expect to be able to access the data with mobile devices. That's a given. And they really don't care about your opinion on the subject. If you want to argue that the limited screen space on a smart phone doesn't lend itself to an adequate presentation of your applications information, you're making the same mistake, when for the last 10 years, you've been arguing that data entry with a GUI was slower than with green screens and therefore, the green screens were not only adequate, they were, in fact, superior. They are not going to believe you or any of your reasons about why making your application's data mobile-accessible is not desirable/practical/possible. And they have good reason not to believe that; your competitors are already doing it.

So now, you don't just have at least five years of GUI to catch up with. Now you have an additional 2 to 3 years of web-enabling and an additional 2 to 3 years of mobile-enabling to catch up with in order to bring your applications into something today's users will use. Otherwise, they will simply find other alternatives.

This was the direction my brain was already going when I happened across two articles in ITworld. The first was titled "Why businesses move to the cloud: They hate IT." ( the second was "Cloud isn't making IT irrelevant; IT is doing that itself." (

It just seems to get worser and worser.

It would appear that the big push for rapid adoption of cloud-based applications is not coming from IT departments looking for ways to increase their ability to rapidly supply and deploy leading-edge capabilities to their users. Rather, the major push seems to be coming from users and their managers as a way to quickly get what they perceive they need by circumventing that the IT department who is either telling them that what they want is not what they really need or is going into "analysis paralysis" and telling them that they will institute a project and deliver to them a year and a half from now.

In the first ITworld article, it was pointed out that

"Eighty seven percent of business managers said they agree or strongly agree that technology is critical to serve and support their customers, according to a Forrester survey of 2,961 business users from Q4 2010, presented at Forrester's IT Forum 2011 May 25 in Las Vegas.

Sixty-nine percent admit their normal budgets - not the shadowy ones they use for rogue projects - include line-items to buy IT products or services without the involvement of IT.

Their top reasons for going around IT? The need to respond quickly to changes in the market, self-sufficiency of their IT-savvy workforce, and the easy availability of top-quality IT services that can be bought without long implementation or testing (cloud and SAAs apps, primarily)."

Now, now. I know it is very tempting to chortle about our "mainstream" colleagues now also being viewed as dinosaurs. But just remember the old joke about the fellow who came home from work early and caught his wife in bed with a neighbor. As he held a gun to his head, she started laughing. "Don't laugh," he shouted. "You're next!" So telling our colleagues, "you're next," doesn't do a thing to remedy our own headlong rush towards extinction.

So, many of us in MultiValue find ourselves once again on the bleeding edge — not the front one, the other side. Through denial and/or procrastination, we find ourselves with five to ten years of catching up to do just to have our users decide whether or not we are irrelevant dinosaurs rather than it being a foregone conclusion. So what can we do to catch up and at least stay in the game?

One might be to consider going from green screen directly to browser-based interfaces. That at least gives you some of the advantages of a GUI interface at the same time you get some of the advantages of web-enablement. It might even be sufficient for accessing your data via a tablet. The smart phone platform, is another problem. But something is better than nothing.

Another might be to embrace the ideal of cloud-based application outsourcing and become the facilitators of that within our organizations. Of course, that means that you are simply using the same commodity as your competitors might be using and therefore have lost part of your competitive advantage.

And, of course, there is always the approach of "let's ignore it and keep doing what were doing" in the hopes that we can just delay the inevitable long enough that we can retire before the asteroid hits. (Referring to the asteroid that most scientists now think precipitated the demise of the dinosaurs, rather than the painful condition sometimes experienced by meteors.)

What is the wrong answer, at least in my opinion, is to ignore the situation and do nothing. Whether that is motivated by fear of the unknown, being too lazy to learn something new, or because of having some sense that "our cause is just, therefore we must be Right" is completely irrelevant. We need to get this through our skulls — the users of our data are in control; we no longer have the final say. If our applications keep waddling and grunting like dinosaurs, they're going to meet the same fate as the organic dinosaurs did. They will simply die, get buried, and turn into fragile fossils.

Oh look. Did your application's left leg just break and fall off?

Clif Oliver

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Jul/Aug 2011