By Mateen Greenway
A Technology Singularity Series
In “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” the late Douglas Adams opined that “no language on Earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport’”. As someone who travels a lot, this is a view I can sympathize with. But as someone who works a lot with legacy business applications I would also strongly suggest we could modify this quote to be “no language on Earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as a legacy business application”.
I believe that one of the biggest barriers for companies, who want to adopt mobile and social computing, is the structure and user interface of their legacy applications. Most business IT users still sit in front of a computer screen, browsing web sites with a keyboard and a mouse. Even where they work remotely or on mobile devices, they still use the same menu driven page structure and navigation systems. One could say you don’t need to fix what’s working, and I would totally agree; except that, staff and user expectations have evolved and people are demanding more. They want to do business with companies and even governments whenever they want, however they want and on whatever device they want. The result is a highly competitive landscape where, armed with the tools of comparison, staff and consumers are demanding more flexible, customized service offering and deeper brand engagement.
Mobile devices typically have limited screen sizes, to use them effectively you need to have apps that are easy to understand and easy to interact with using touch commands on a small screen. Legacy applications are typically complex and the User Interfaces often implement “green screen”, text heavy, keyboard-input based, screens linked by complex and numerous menus. For example, in a legacy environment you are typically faced with a logon screen where you are forced to type in a complex password. Typing such a complex password into a mobile device is very difficult even on a Windows 8, corporate controlled, tablet. So it’s not just transforming the legacy app – it’s about transforming the whole ecosystem under which the user operates. This is not the model that the mobile apps people use personally have; they are simple, visual, designed for touch screen use and generally single function. For them to work well on mobile devices you need more than the traditional “lift and shift” approach to implementing them on new technologies.
This is not to say that you have to get rid of your legacy applications. Aside from the huge cost of doing this, there is also the danger that your business would be adversely impacted by such major systems changes. The legacy systems generally contain the key transactional business processes that an organization has to do to service its core business.
Instead, I believe, that many legacy applications will effectively become platforms supplying data and business processes for a new generation of easy to use, single business process, social, visual user applications that are designed to meet the needs of the mobile users.
This approach allows companies to continue to leverage the significant investment they have made in their current legacy systems while gaining the advantages of mobile and social computing.
Why the reference to airports? One of the key techniques used in designing airports today is Wayfinding. The idea is to build airports that are simple to navigate, where the flow through the airport is simple and the points at which passengers have choices are clearly signposted. Sounds simple, but think of the complex navigation structure more large corporate, or government, bureaucratic process have. These were typically automated using IT, to increase the speed of execution, but the processes themselves were rarely simplified. Think of how complex completing your tax return is, for example. The same principle needs to be applied to mobile and social applications: They need to be simple and clear to use otherwise people will not use them.
From a security perspective these hybrid applications actually allow us to address some major issues: Most importantly they can implement user facing front ends that do not bring corporate data onto the end-user device. Instead they can use secure access to the back-end legacy system which can be run in a secure, legacy, private cloud or managed cloud, environment.
Gaining the benefits of mobility and social computing can’t be achieved simply by accessing your legacy applications via a mobile device. Instead you need a new style of application designed for use by mobile and social users. This doesn’t mean you have to throw away your legacy applications but rather that you need to find a way to incorporate their processes and data into new style applications that are designed to meet the needs of the user not the legacy bureaucratic process.
Mateen Greenway is the HP Enterprise Services chief technologist for the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) Public Sector where he is responsible for overall strategy, technical direction, innovation and leading the senior client facing technical leaders and key Account Chief Technologists in this major Industry.