Review of Infowin/iX
Shawn M. Gordon
Are you getting depressed because you can’t go to client/server, and your VPLUS or character mode applications are looking a little tattered around the edges? Have you been looking with awe at some of those 3rd party applications that make your standard HP terminal look like it does windows? Have you wanted to try to add that kind of functionality to your own applications?
Over the years a number of products have come out that have allowed you to add windowing to applications running on the HP 3000. Some have been easy to use, some have been hard, the latest entry to this field is Infowin/Ix from Silton Information Services. Infowin is little more unique in that it allows you to bolt onto both character mode and block mode applications without having to rewrite the entire interface. You can leave your application basically alone, and just add the pieces that you want. Starting with popup help is always nice.
I tested Infowin/iX on my 925 running MPE/iX 5.0
As a product Infowin gives you the ability to add five different types of pop-up windows to your application; they are Message, Text, Data, Select, and Print. The Message window type allows your program to put up an overlay text message anywhere on your screen. Since the data can be dynamically assigned at function call time this is usually good for something like context sensitive help, or maybe error messages. Figure 1 show’s an example of a couple help windows overlaying each other.
The Text window is similar to the Message window, except that the data and coordinates for the window are stored in an Infowin Database. The advantage to this is that you can modify the size, location, and content of the window without modifying the programs making use of it. This is very well suited to user configurable help systems. Let the user describe their own help and take the burden off of yourself. Figure 2 will show you an example of the Master Text Maintenance screen. This is where you can create text windows to link to programs. You specify row and column coordinates for the upper left and lower right corners of the window. What is cool at this point is that the window appears, and you type your text right in it. The margins are set such that when you hit return, or get to the end of the line, you are kept within the boundaries of the window. You can even have text that spans the size of the box, so you can scroll through data in a limited screen area. There are only two problems here, if you where to hit the backspace key at the first column of the window, you will not wrap back up to the end of the previous line, but rather wipe out the first character of the window, as you can see from figure 1. This only affects what you are seeing at the moment, the data is correctly stored and redisplayed later. The second problem is that when you are typing text, you can end up wrapping down past the boundaries of the drawn window. Infowin needs to do better cursor control to keep this from happening.
The Data window is where Infowin really shines. Take a look at Figure3 and you will see an example of the type of pick list that you can have the Data window generate. Basically the Data window let’s you define the same types of the things as you do with the Text window, position and size, then you can link it to an Image database, KSAM, or MPE file, specify key linkages, information to display, edit mask’s, calculated fields for both numeric and string type data. In general you should find the Data window function powerful enough that you shouldn’t have to do any hand coding of one yourself, and take from someone who has written dozens of pick list routines, it’s no fun, so this functionality is greatly appreciated.
The Select window basically allows you to pop up a window with ‘radio’ buttons. This is a series of selections that are mutually exclusive, the old “OK”..”CANCEL” type of thing. You could do something like “View the list or Print the list” kind of functionality, I’m sure you can think of plenty applications for this.
The Print window is pretty fun, it allows you to select a printer and print characteristics, and then prints out the desired text, it will also print out the function key labels, which is pretty cool.
To make use of Infowin you will have to make some changes to your program to call the appropriate XL routine with a few parameters. This is pretty easy to do, and really doesn’t require much in the way of code changes to be able to take advantage of nice pop-up windows. The Text and Data windows require that you also configure the windows within Infowin as I described previously. All the documentation and example files are geared for use with COBOL, this is fine with me because that’s what most business applications are written (baring 4GLs).
Although it’s a little awkward to set up initially, it’s certainly worth the effort for the functionality you get. Most third party windowing solutions don’t give you this much power with so little effort.
Usability (also installation)
The installation of the software goes quit smoothly, it’s your standard RESTORE, stream a job, put the tape back online, and away you go. The installation job purges itself, which always makes me happy.
As I’ve mentioned already, it’s a bit hard to get started in Infowin because of the sparse nature of the documentation. Once you get the feel of the software it’s pretty easy to work with.
Other than some display problems during the design phase, as previously mentioned, Infowin doesn’t appear to have any serious flaws. So high marks for a solid product.
I was really pleased by how snappy Infowin performed. Their use of psuedo-windowing technology is very effecient, and comes up very quickly. I have seen other products where it wasn’t near as robust or quick. You obviously do get an extra CPU hit from the overhead of the extra terminal writes for the windows to appear, but it seems that Infowin is doing this in an effecient manner to reduce the overhead.
Supportability (including Doc)
The support from Silton is fine, it’s a small shop and they know their product. Where things really fall down is in the documentation. It is in desperate need of a walk through tutorial, and a full working example. The snippets that are included in the manual, and on the tape are woefully lacking. It took more effort than it should have to get into the product because of the lack of documentation. I imagine this should be remedied shortly by Silton.
Infowin is a fascinating technology, I have seen similar types of things done a couple of other times, but I think Infowin is the only one to support both character and block mode applications. I know that HP is looking at adding a lot of these features to VPLUS, and they should probably just look at buying out Infowin from Silton.
The lack of good training documentation is a serious problem for the standard user, and is my biggest cause of reservation about the product. As I said earlier, this should be resolved soon. I would also like to see the design environment be more graphical in nature. It’s really nice that they pop-up the window for you when you are typing the text for it, but it would be nice to be able to set the corners of the window interactivly instead of having to specify coordinates. The other thing I would like to see changed is the use of the function keys, the values of the function keys should all be applicable whenever they are shown. So if a screen changes, you shouldn’t have function keys displayed that have to function. Infowin is still a new product, so I imagine these types of things will show up in later versions.
If you are using VPLUS and want to add some nice functionality, then Infowin is certainly something you will want to look at. The nice thing is the ability to bolt it onto existing programs with pretty minimum effort. The ability to include pick lists into inquiry type programs is certainly a boon, and the other options that are available will certainly please your users.
Infowin/iX version 1.05
Silton Information Systems
4219 S. alameda St.
Los angeles, CA 90058
Call, write, or FAX to recieve a free demo copy. Software includes one 21 page reference manual, and costs $3,000 for the full version, $500 for a stripped down version.