A New Day in Imaging

The Dark Ages are over, let the light shine forth. The fear, uncertainty and doubt shrouding AS/400 imaging are banished, replaced by capability, confidence and efficiency.

The new array of readily available products solves many of the document management and storage problems that vexed midrange shops in years past. These solutions tend to be powerful, flexible and economical, and they come with a reliability that rivals that of more established technologies.

What used to be called just "imaging" is now more accurately dubbed "imaging-related technologies". Originally, imaging referred to electronic storage and retrieval of documents, the old electronic file cabinet concept. That remains the single most important and cost-effective imaging application. The ability to exchange paper for electronic images is still a compelling reason to adopt the technology.

Now, however, capabilities dwarf those that were highly touted in the early years of this decade. Workflow, multimedia, fax, document management, knowledge management, and Computer Output to Laser Disk (COLD) -- now being renamed Enterprise Report Management (ERM) -- have expanded imaging's horizons to vistas about which the original developers only dreamt.

No Longer a Market of One

Simultaneously, the control that IBM exerted on the AS/400 imaging market has relaxed, and other companies are claiming significant market shares. Prices are down, reliability is up and most obstacles to AS/400 shops adding imaging have evaporated.

Midrange imaging's initial glory days came shortly after the first boxes shipped. Metafile Information Systems (Rochester, Minn.) announced their Metaview language/workbench in February 1989, and IBM's ImagePlus for the AS/400, WAF, emerged shortly thereafter. Other companies such as ViewStar and Macrosoft (Rochester Hills, Mich.) joined the fray, but none had the distribution system or marketing muscle to seriously challenge Big Blue's market share.

Unfortunately, WAF was not for everyone. Originally developed for Citibank's credit card operation in Sioux Falls, S.D., it was not a particularly flexible product. Customers' satisfaction was in direct proportion to the similarity of their system to Citibank's. Also, WAF was expensive and it quickly got the reputation for being a lot of money for a modicum of usability. Despite that, ImagePlus acquired a dominant share of the market simply by being IBM. The downside was that imaging in general got a reputation for being inordinately expensive for minimal improvements in productivity. With an obstacle like that, relatively few AS/400 shops looked to imaging and related technologies for solutions in the 1993 to 1996 time frame.

While competition dwindled, IBM kept selling WAF, and the copies it sold were highly profitable -- if only because its installation commonly forced a hardware and OS/400 upgrade. With a dearth of competition, IBM was under little pressure to use precious engineering resources to improve the product. While ImagePlus for other platforms enjoyed serious modernization, WAF languished like the proverbial poor little rich kid.

Competition Fuels Growth

Fortunately for AS/400 users, during the middle years of the decade, other vendors were using new software techniques and new hardware capabilities to develop a broader range of imaging-related solutions. Reliability improved dramatically from the first generation of imaging products. Most importantly, the improvements the new products brought were so dramatic that buyers recouped their investment in a matter of months and oftentimes gained a significant competitive advantage as well.

AS/400 users coveted the success of imaging they saw on other platforms. Would-be competitors found that a modest marketing budget brought gratifying returns, and IBM's hammerlock on the market was broken.

Responding to the challenge, IBM finally updated WAF and packaged it with the popular EDMSuite successfully used on other platforms. It was the dawn of a new day.

Industry leaders attribute much of the change to improved hardware. Almost every aspect has improved, according to Ron Vangell, founder and president of Magellan Software (Laguna Hills, Calif.) "The AS/400 has done a good job in reinventing itself," he comments. "When we started in 1992, the AS/400 lacked support for all the newly emerging technologies. IBM reinvented it with modern technology and no increase in cost. The 64-bit RISC system was an ingenious move, as was the black box."

Improvements in PCs have also made a substantial difference. PCs have always been needed for compression/decompression of images. Until the release of Intel 486 and Pentium PCs, workstations groaned under the stress.

Allan Sprau, president of Metafile, credits improved operating systems and the evolution of the Internet for the new day in midrange imaging. "Windows NT is becoming a much better companion to the AS/400," he says. "Windows 95/98 has made a much more powerful workstation. At the same time, the emergence of HTML is key for the merging of image with Internet materials. That rich format has empowered our full-text search engines and our ability to mix other formats with bit-mapped images."

Every imaging system component has seen major gains. For example, input of documents used to be a major discouragement. Scanners were balky, indexing was a bottleneck and sophisticated technologies now taken for granted were non-existent. Today, there are tools like bar codes and character recognition to facilitate indexing, and scanners have reached unprecedented speeds. Companies like Kofax (Laguna Hills, Calif.) and Input Software (San Jose, Calif.) [formerly Cornerstone] provide accelerator boards and software that eliminate a raft of problems. Kofax, in fact, has written special versions of its products to work with IBM's EDMSuite.

The result is a renaissance in midrange imaging. Software vendors are thriving as the AS/400 community sheds its old perspectives. The market has grown to permit specialization. DalTech International (Dallas) has a corner on delivering Eastman Software (formerly Wang) imaging solutions for the AS/400. Ricomm Systems, (Marlton, N.J.) delivers imaging- based records management specifically for the legal profession. Vanguard Systems (Media, Pa.) has staked out the low-cost, plug-and-play arena. Real Vision Software (Alexandria, La.) offers a cross industry AS/400 imaging solution, while Com Squared Systems (Atlanta) delivers midrange knowledge management solutions tied to Unix software.

Knowledge Management

Knowledge management, a continuing evolutionary step includes an array of imaging-related technologies melded with the Internet. While most vendors have enabled their products for Internet/intranet applications, SolCom Inc. (formerly TransMed, Sioux Falls, S.D.) offers native AS/400 knowledge management as their central focus. SolCom’s President, Marv Addink, was the creator of the original WAF product for IBM. The new SolCom software delivers folders within folders, management of many kinds of objects, easy integration with 5250 screens (including Year 2000-compliance) and Lotus Notes integration.

And where is IBM in all of this? Big Blue offers a notable product with the unmarketable moniker, IBM EDMSuite ImagePlus Visual Info for AS/400 Version 4.3. Despite competitors' criticisms, EDMSuite has some impressive installations. It takes full advantage of the dynamic improvements in the AS/400 such as Internet capabilities and improved security. IBM touts its advanced workflow capabilities. Note, however, that EDMSuite for AS/400 does require OS/400 V4R3, Windows NT or Windows 95 for the Visual Info client and the availability of plenty of host cycles.

The good news is that there are now plenty of excellent choices for AS/400 imaging with related technologies. The sophistication of the software and the dramatic growth in the hardware combine to provide solutions that solve a myriad of problems in the business world. Current figures show that when companies ask whether imaging-related technologies help business operation, the answer is “yes” about 85 percent of the time. [Source: Imerge Consulting, where Hoke is a principal].

That stands in stark contrast to midrange imaging's Dark Ages. It is, indeed, a new day.