It’s hard to believe that 5250 emulation has been with us for 35 years. Back in 1980, Joe Frank had an idea about how to connect to PCs to IBM midrange computers. I was lucky enough to spend an evening with Joe. Over drinks in a hotel bar in Chicago he told me the amazing story of how he had the idea for PC-based emulation, how IBMers in Rochester thought he was nuts ("PCs are toys! They don’t have anything to do with the S/38!"), and how he came to form his own company, Software Systems, Inc  (later to become Synapse) to make his emulator idea a reality. Joe would later be known as the "father of 5250 emulation." 

Joe died about ten years ago. He was a humble man who I’m sure today would try to marginalize his impact on the way we now use the IBM i. But make no mistake, his impact reverberates daily as users around the world fire up their PCs to do IBM i-centric work. Joe’s technologies became pervasive in the IBM midrange community. If you used, among others, Blue Lynx, Connectronix, DCA, Emerald, Netsoft (who doesn’t remember Netsoft!), and Nlynx emulators back in the day you were using Joe’s technologies. This was back when there were so many 5250 emulation vendors that NEWS/400 would publish an annual 5250 emulator multi-page buyers’ guide, with product reviews.

While not an early pioneer, IBM quickly threw its hat into the 5250 emulator ring with its PC Support product. Later that product evolved into Client Access for Windows and has since been through a plethora of other names. In about 1996 or so, IBM offered up the Software Subscription, its plan to make hardware and operating system maintenance budgetable and payable with a recurring fixed amount. IT managers bought into the concept big time and in short order Software Subscription (and its follow-on programs) changed the way IBM midrange maintenance was perceived by CFOs. One of the residual impacts of the Software Subscription was to propagate the perception that IBM Client Access was now free. It wasn’t. It was still a chargeable product, but with the right Software Subscription checkboxes checked, its cost was pretty easy to push under the umbrella of regular maintenance costs.

Despite not really being free, for all intents and purposes Client Access was free. And it being "free" rang the death knell for nearly all third-party 5250 emulator vendors. In very short order, the third-party 5250 emulator marketplace quite nearly vanished. Even after Joe Frank’s death, Synapse’s products persist today through a partnership with Connectronix and Trilobyte—and the Synapse-derived products remain a good alternative to IBM’s product. Although Client Access is the standard bearer of 5250 emulation, it has a reputation, and I’m being graceful here, of being a big, fat pig. As a fat pig alternative, Mochasoft carved out a nice niche for itself when most others couldn’t and has now been around for many years. 

Nice story, but where is all of this going? 

For nearly 20 years, IBM’s Client Access has been the go-to Windows-based 5250 emulator for the majority of IBM i shops. But, reading between the lines carefully on IBM’s IBM i Access for Windows (the follow-on to Client Access and all of its other incarnations) product page, IBM i Access for Windows will not support Windows 10. IBM had also previously announced that IBM i Access for Windows would be frozen at 7.1—but was also adamant to say that the V7.1 version of IBM i Access would be supported on any upcoming version of IBM i. The UK-based reported this back in June but I took it as alarmist and surely not on the mark. A tweet brought this back to my attention the other day and I read things again.

I’m not sure the IBM product page was written correctly, but I am starting to think that PowerWire is on the money with its assessment that IBM i Access for Windows is going away. Or at least IBM wants it to. Dispensing with a decades old, big, fat pig code base and trying to swing customers to the newer Java-based IBM i Access, which supports not only Windows but also Linux and Mac desktops, has a measure of corporate logic in it. I can imagine an IBMer somewhere proudly boasting, "See, we told you Windows wouldn’t be successful!" Big, fat pig code base or not, I wonder if IBM’s bean counters are of the mindset that finally a Java-based product makes IBM i Access available to the other 66% of desktop possibilities, when the reality is that 66% of additional desktop possibilities translates to about 3% of the desktops connected to the IBM i. Windows 10 is going to be with us for a long time and we’ll want a 5250 emulator product that works very well on Windows. What we don’t need is a write-once, run anywhere, least common-denominator version of IBM i Access.

ASNA has your back

Regardless of what IBM does with IBM i Access, if big, fat pig emulator software is getting on your nerves, don’t forget that ASNA offers Browser Terminal (BTerm), a browser-based 5250 emulator terminal. With a zero-desktop footprint, BTerm quickly and easily puts 5250 emulation at your users’ fingertips. BTerm supports all of the popular browsers (and therefore also works on Windows, Macs, and Linux clients), is optimized for desktops and tablets, requires no installation on a user’s workstation, and it’s free for your first five users!