Everyone is changing their UI these days — even new automobiles have touch screens rather than buttons. However, not all UIs are created equal. Some of them are just pretty faces. Although they do make accessing features and functions easier and more intuitive, the basic underlying processes remain untouched.
But over the last few months, several major solution providers have released or announced new interfaces that take both the users’ and the developers’ experiences to a new level. These provide the user with a more holistic experience, as well as unification across multiple hardware platforms — smart phone, tablet and desktop. They also integrate other services such as enterprise social networking and enterprise search into the users’ environments enabling interactions with data, processes, and people. Let’s look at a few of these developments and compare them a bit, since they have taken slightly different roads to these engaging environments.
- Infor ION — was one of the early environments. Infor made many attempts, and learned not only from their early tries, but also from the efforts of their competitors.1 The mega-firms were bogged down by multiple codebases and the economic weight of supporting all that code. In addition, new features and functions were not accessible to their vast customer base that was on disparate platforms. ION moved from a mere middleware layer to a complete environment (no small feat). In addition to integrating key modules in the portfolio, they embraced the whole user-experience side of the application — unified platform2 and analytics.
- Epicor — the Internet Component Environment (ICE) was announced last year and has become a focal point for Epicor customers, partners, and developers. Taking the next leap, Epicor uses ICE as really an ‘activity gateway’ which includes enterprise social networking and search; as well as a development environment that developers or customers can use to create their own modifications to business functions, analytics, and interfaces. All this interfaces to the ERP3 or other business applications on the platform of choice (smart phone, tablet or desktop).
- UNIT4 — the newest development to date is re-engineering their Agresso solutions to place people at the core of the process, rather than just making them automatons of the process. In other words, it will be my world — my processes, my reports, my contracts, my to-dos, my expense reports, etc. In order to accomplish this, they are not just sticking a face on the old code; they have invested years in rethinking the core of the solution.
- SYSPRO — will also embrace the Metro and Azure tools from Microsoft, rethinking the way people work. Interestingly, they are taking tools once used only by developers and leveraging the document flows/workflow functions to provide them as user tools. You, the user, may not want to use them, but this approach unlocks a deep level of productivity for the programmers, for sure. And more importantly, it isolates low-level code and utility functions from the processes of screen and report design/development, so those who are not familiar with the heavy coding required to develop these programs won’t have to code.
You can read more about these companies in our ERP library.
A lot has been said about the end-user experience, but let’s go back to the developer. This is a critical topic for today’s work world, where the tech community is still on a roll with the lowest unemployment rate compared to other job categories in the economy. Economic forecasts for this year predict an increasing rate of new jobs as the year progresses, and many of them will be technology oriented.
In fact, just like end-users, developers also live in a world of complexity. Users balance between their professional language and processes, and also must make investments in the language the system requires in order to do their job.
Developers, we assume, have more dexterity with technology. However, they still are required to know a fairly deep list of technologies in order to complete a task, create a database, or design a system. Even more problematic is a gnawing fact: the technology community is straddling between the old and the new worlds of technology paradigms. They have to move from the world of coding — the arduous process of developing processes, to the world of designing — reshaping the look and feel of the user interface, and mastering the new methods and tools associated with that.
We are moving from a world that emphasized ‘how it works’ to one that emphasizes ‘how it looks.’ As several CTOs have pointed out to me, they have written “all the math, all the code, and in redundancy; but it is not accessible.” And maybe very soon, not supportable, either.
Due to the evolution in computer languages and development environments, it is becoming difficult to support the past.4 Much of the enterprise software that runs the world was coded in languages such as FORTRAN, BASIC, COBOL, C, C+, and Java, to name a few. Beyond that, the enterprise has a blizzard of integration code, workflows, and extracts and dumps into gazillions of databases and spreadsheets. All that needs to be supported by highly-skilled individuals. After all, customers are paying hefty fees for support.
And although, like all committed geeks, they thrive on embracing technology, these are not your father’s technologies. The new computer science students are not studying EDI and ERP and most don’t know what EDI is. And that creates a real problem, but also a real opportunity for a resurgence of interest in CASE (Computer Aided Software Engineering), modeling tools, and other ways to make the worlds of support and new development more manageable.
This brings us to the future or the face of things to come. Rightly so, in this world, the visual experience is vital for users, and programmers are being taught to understand the human mind and senses in order to improve the UI.
Methods that deal with the challenges in human interaction were taught in programming decades ago, but the available tools were more primitive — no graphics, no sound, no video. There was just a flat screen for which the programmer could design and code forms. They used math-like code to create things that looked like this. →
← vs. this. SYSPRO’s tool set is one example of this change. They are in pilots with key customers now. This will put development in the hands of users who have a visual drag and drop experience. This paradigm is one which many are familiar with — Visio-like. But behind the flows, the screens, reports, menus, etc. are being generated.
New API approaches are beginning to gain steam. For example, some of the more advanced Managed File Transfer providers such as Cleo and Ipswitch, cloud workflow (Hubspan) tool providers, and even managed-service EDI companies (DiCentral and RedTail) are enriching their B2B and workflow libraries with tools to automatically enable, or at least ease mapping (so that even the variants of coding the end-points are automated).6
Agile development is a technique which is used to speed up development (you can read more about it at Wikipedia, here). Some of the larger firms, as well as many of the entrepreneurial younger firms with a yen for speed-to-market have embraced this technique. Rather than having ‘one massive release’ with over-hyped expectation (which is generally too complex to manage in larger systems), they focus on a quicker, more manageable approach.
Another trend is managed services — just outsourcing the whole operation. Once the managed-service provider has your process, they automate and standardize as much as possible to ensure that their staff can support their customers, whether they number in the dozens or thousands. This is another way companies will move forward, which they must, since ironically, the more technology companies — and consumers — get, the more they want.
And this brings us full circle to the value of new UI and new development capabilities. They are not just superficial in their value but provide a leap forward in convenience and productivity for both users and developers. The young can’t and won’t work with the old technologies, so we need methods and options to work at a layer of abstraction, yet continue to innovate. And with a growing shortage of programmers who can support existing systems, this industry is facing a cliff of its own. Shortages stymie progress. We will need these and other developments from the best and brightest innovators to create productivity tools which ensure that the pace of innovation continues to improve.
1 Oracle Fusion, and Netweaver from SAP — Return to article text above
2 Smart phone, tablet and desktop — Return to article text above
3 ICE is available for Epicor and Prophet 21 customers — Return to article text above
4 Many attempts have been made over the years to use code-engineering tools — CASE tools and IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) and open-source to automate the development process. These are bearing a lot of fruit in speeding up the development process, as well as making the technology more supportable. — Return to article text above
5 The exceptions are Java, C, C+, and C++, which are still widely taught in schools. — Return to article text above
6 Application integration providers, cloud service, and tools/software for mapping code — taking your local variant and converting it to a standard format within their process or your customer’s format. — Return to article text above
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