Augmenting Browser-Based Development
Do you remember when Microsoft* came out with FrontPage? The intent, amongst other things, was to make life easier for people to do Web development. And overnight, people were cutting their own Web pages - people who didn't have a clue what the Web was at one time were now becoming their own Webmasters. The intent was to provide a lot of deep functionality in an easy-to-use integrated development environment (IDE). There were a lot of others that used tools like Dreamweaver for more serious development, and a lot of FrontPage users eventually migrated to Dreamweaver as their IDE of choice. Ever think this could come to the System i platform? Perhaps it has. This month, we look at Websmart from BCD.
A couple downloads from the Web, and I was in business. Post-install configuration wasn't painful, and I was off to the walk-through in short order.
Ease of Use
Frankly, this is one of the larger products that I've looked at for an article. I won't pretend to tell you that I've hit all the functionality or played with each and every feature ... that would be like saying I learned WebSphere* and was a guru in a month. And we all know that doesn't happen.
What I can say is that you need to do the walk-throughs with support staff like Marcel Sarrasin, and you need to go through the provided learning programs. Further, I recommend you read the users guide a couple times before you even open the reference manual. Remember how the RPG manuals were back when the AS/400* first came out? We had a reference guide and a users guide, and they were substantially different in content and approach. But we learned what was where and quickly used them both effectively. Same concept applies here.
Having said all that, you'll find that you'll be writing basic stuff within a day or two. As is with learning any new IDE and language (and there's a language involved here - see the Functionality section below), it will take a little time and effort but given all the helps, programming aids, etc., you should be good to go. People I spoke with that use the product say that their programmers were at an RPG programmer equivalent level in a month and guru in three - obviously, your results may vary.
Documentation is very nicely done for the base product, and there are some extended how-tos in the online knowledge base. I did make some suggestions for a couple minor changes. Again, read the users guide first. They're both well done, but spending time with the users guide first will make your learning curve a lot smoother.
Everything I played with seemed to work as advertised.
Functionality / Usefulness
With FrontPage, which I mentioned earlier, you have a lot of nice macro work done for you so you can request functionality and the utility will import/prompt this functionality for you. Websmart has a lot of the same capabilities, which helps with the development and learning curves. A lot of this is documented in the manuals, but there's also a selection of base routines available for you to cut and paste from, some of which are on its Web site. It's not a sourceforge in depth, but it's nice, growing and useful.
I would fully expect you to be building simple file maintenance routines literally within hours of your installation and walk-through. The more complex stuff will depend on what you want to do. To that end, there's also a development language called PML, which the tool translates to RPG and compiles. This becomes your application. Actually, everything you do is done in PML and HTML, compiled and that's what you run when you launch it from a browser.
A set of demo applications is also shipped. Now, these are used by the marketing folks to show you functionality, but if you look inside them, they're really good how-to samples. And if you really want to jump-start your learning curve, launch and look at them first. Also a new debugger should be available by the time you read this.
What you're going to find when you get into this is that Websmart is part of a suite of products that can give you a browser-based interface with some really nice pictorially available display features of charts that you could never touch in the old 5250 world. In short, your applications don't look like they're 5250 screens that have been run through a GUI converter; they look, feel and act like real Web.
Now, I'm sure you're going to ask, "What about my current software code investment? What can I do with it?" Well, in short, there's a migrational add-on option tool, but it's not for blanket code conversion. I recommend treating your current environment and Websmart environment as two separate entities. Yes, you can call programs in your current program set from Websmart-- that's not an issue. But don't plan on cranking your current code through any converter and expecting a migration. It's not there and not supported from that standpoint. What you can do, and probably should do, is rewrite your applications from the utility perspective and if you have some long extensive code blocks in RPG, convert those and cut/paste them into your new environment. That would be easier.
Am I suggesting dropping your current investment for this in toto? No. I'm suggesting that you use both to augment each other and pull the best from both options you have available to you.
I've not seen anyone as doggedly concerned that a user understand its product as Marcel was. This group also uses Web-meeting capabilities a lot, which allows them to show you in real time, on either your box or theirs, whatever you need to do. This beats the heck out of having to deal with a voice-only response and being told over the phone which buttons to push. Having tech support initially offer and suggest a Web-based meeting to introduce their product is a great idea. I'd like to see this approach more often in tech support. Marcel, for your tenacity and patience with my learning curve, I give you an Extra Mile award.
I intentionally used the term "augment" in a previous paragraph. Frankly, I like that term in this context. Clearly, you can drop everything and rewrite cold turkey, but that's just not reality. This product presents a really nice browser front-end capability and lets you keep your back-end code investment while wowing the user base at the same time. I don't like writing marketing copy, but there's some really nice presentation-level options here, and you don't have to worry about dealing with all those annoying database interface drivers as in some of the graphical tools.
The Report Card
KICK THE TIRES: Websmart would be on my short list of products to evaluate for browser-based development on System i hardware.