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As we researched Compuware’s latest Uniface 9.2 release, in order to bring our Uniface evaluation up-to-date, I was once again reminded of the role of fashion in IT procurement. I was once, well before Compuware bought Uniface, working at a bank (since acquired by one of Compuware’s Uniface customers) when the business attempted to implement a Uniface solution. In fact, this was the start of my disillusionment with (some) IT groups, because a friend of mine in the business told me that the business case for Uniface was overwhelming, particularly in terms of “time to market”, but it was rejected because the IT group imposed a crushing “maintenance cost” penalty for the use of “non-strategic” technology. Its strategic technology choice was (pseudo) object orientation using C++, without any sort of metadata-enabled object repository to facilitate the production and reuse of reusable objects. I wonder what the maintenance cost of that choice was over the years.
But, we have to face facts. Uniface is a “4GL” and 4GLs were going out of fashion then (and a “new broom” IT director was leveraging IT innovation to make a career for himself). So, although Uniface still has loyal customers that bought into the 4GL concept some 20 years ago (and are still happy with the term), Aad van Schetsen, VP for Uniface Solutions at Compuware, points out that Uniface is now marketed (rather successfully, he claims) to new customers as an “Application Platform Suite”.
Uniface still delivers what 4GLs always used to deliver, of course: business focus, rapid time to market, ease of knowledge (domain expertise) transfer to new developers, isolation of the business process from the underlying technology and so on. These are things that many organisations want today, even some of those that “know” they don’t want a 4GL.
And Uniface appears to have a very forward looking strategy based around acquiring new customers, with the help of its strategic partners; while retaining and modernising existing customers (A well-known mobile phone shop is a typical example, with character-mode Uniface applications in all its shops); and expanding its partnership program. As far as I can see, this is working well. So I promise to stop talking about 4GL; well soon, anyway. The latest release of Uniface supports multichannel access to mobile platforms, enterprise-strength “mash-ups”, SOA, workflow and similarly fashionable technology initiatives, so it can’t be a “4GL”, can it?
Interestingly, this IT fashion issue seems mainly to be a feature of Western Europe and the USA. Aad van Schetsen tells us that: “the moment you leave W. Europe and the US, there’s more opportunity for 4GL” Mexico has, apparently, just put on a larger Uniface user conference than a European country could manage; Japan has Uniface’s largest customer base and the biggest bank in Brazil is a Uniface customer. Perhaps emerging economies (not that Japan is exactly emerging) don’t have time for fashion.
Obviously, the fashion issue can be addressed fairly easily, by reading “trends” articles in the popular IT press with healthy cynicism and avoiding technology buzzword contests with fellow directors down at the golf club. You should always look beyond the marketing descriptions of a product and determine what it actually does—what “purpose” it is fit for. Assuming that you are quite clear on what purpose you have in mind for your technology acquisition (if not, perhaps you’d better do some research), you can then decide whether a product that is “fit for (some) purpose” is “fit for (your) purpose”—and then, if it is, buy it. And don’t forget to apply the same evaluation process to your existing technology—it may well be still “fit for purpose”. Perhaps you should also contemplate the consequences of your choice (more training, perhaps; technology platform upgrades etc.). Oh, and it might be good to review your decision formally, after a month or so, to see if you need to remediate any emerging problems; and whether you can learn something that might improve your acquisition/upgrade process in future.
Nevertheless, you can’t just ignore fashion. If the stock market (assuming that you have the misfortune to be a publicly quoted company) has decided that the technology your business runs on effectively is only used by losers, by all means call it a Service-Oriented Widget Processing Platform, or stick an optional Vista front-end on it, or announce a Linux Modernisation Strategy. Just don’t stop using it until moving off your “legacy” makes real business sense.
And don’t forget that using older technologies, even if effective ones, can make your technologists feel insecure, as they might be falling behind their peers as far as marketable skills go. Unfortunately, the ones that leave to get wider experience will be those that find it easiest to get jobs elsewhere (that is, the ones you most want to keep).
In fact, being an expert in an unfashionable but effective and widely deployed technology can make for a pretty secure (and well-paid) career. However, keep faith with your technicians by offering them training in the latest developments relevant to your platform and by adopting any modernisation initiatives promoted by your technology vendor—even if on smaller, less-strategic projects. Although good technology stays cost-effective for longer than people often think, you still need to have a modernisation strategy and be aware of what everyone else is doing.