Dan Bricklin's Web Site: www.bricklin.com
Why Alpha Anywhere matters
Alpha Anywhere lets a wide range of people develop mobile and other applications for businesses

Alpha Anywhere logo

When I first described my idea for VisiCalc to my finance professor at Harvard Business School, before anyone knew what an "electronic spreadsheet" was, his reaction was: "There already are financial forecasting systems. Why would anybody want yours?" (As I recall, he was sitting at his desk, looking up from reams of pages of output from such older computer systems.) What he didn't realize at the time was that there were an enormous number of people who were unsuited to his type of tool. They understood the problems they needed to solve. However, fooling around with FORTRAN programs and waiting for printed listings were barriers that were either not worth surmounting for time or cost reasons or beyond their training. The way that an electronic spreadsheet would let you concentrate on the problem and solution, rather than lines of code and obscure input formats, was not obvious to him given my early description of what I hoped to build. (While he wasn't one of the professors who did encourage me to build VisiCalc, he helped me in other, very valuable ways.)

Fast forward 34 years and now I'm telling people that they should look at the new Alpha Anywhere product for creating mobile business applications.

"Business applications?" they say. "Why can't you just use PHP or Ruby?" I answer: "That's OK for web pages, but what about mobile?" Then they start talking about native development (Objective-C for iOS, Java for Android). Then they mention various frameworks for JavaScript, and ways to interface that JavaScript to native code. They haven't mentioned much about the database side, and just assume that the person who will do all this knows how to access commercial-grade databases like SQL Server, Oracle, and MySQL. They haven't thought about reports and charts for data analysis. Like my professor, they just assumed that all mobile and desktop business apps were the types that warranted someone who loved to, and had the time to, code and explore the latest special frameworks for specific tasks. They were probably thinking not about business applications but rather the generally well-known types of mobile apps, like social/media apps, games, and other manifestations of what has made smartphones and tablets so popular. They were probably not thinking of the data-capture, data-retrieval, transaction oriented, and support applications so common in business.

When you think of "real" business applications you often think of SAP, Salesforce.com, and payroll. What you probably don't think about are the myriad "applications" created using Excel and VBA, or Microsoft Access, or even the old FoxPro. A lot of the PHP apps people think about are just simple data manipulation and storage, with simple HTML and perhaps a little canned use of JQuery for dropdown menus. The people who produce these applications are not about to learn a few new languages and frameworks, and then write code from scratch. The applications written with these problem-oriented tools have powered, and continue to power, businesses small and large. (One huge, well-known company reportedly has 10,000 Access applications. I've seen major players in the insurance business who depend on huge Excel applications.)

Unfortunately, those older systems do not support the current interactive style of web applications very well, if at all, and they don't address mobile applications that need to be touch-driven.

As I wrote a decade or so ago in my "Why Johnny can't program" essay, there is a continuum of ways to author "programs", running from statement languages like C and Java, to dialog box-centric systems with one-click preview like Visual Basic, to direct manipulation systems like a word processor. The further you move down this continuum, the wider an audience of potential users.

The solutions to "how to build a mobile app and a companion browser-based app for big-screen computers with keyboards and a mouse" that I hear are almost all in the "write in this statement-based language and then integrate it with this currently hot system you need to master and then use this other set for the browser" category. If I only had to write one app, and I had the time and people capable of quickly mastering those systems, and it was the keystone for my company's success, then that might be the way to go. For all of the applications that need to be built by people who are "domain experts" and not coding experts, statement-based languages are not the way to go. We need something closer to the Microsoft Access and Excel/VBA of the past.

Mobile devices open up entire areas of applications in an enterprise that were not able to take advantage of computing power and shared data. Just like on the desktop, this will result in the need to write untold numbers of custom apps to meet each company's specific needs. The popularity of the hundreds of thousands of consumer-oriented apps on everybody's personal mobile devices is making them expect, and demand, similarly tailored apps for use in their work environment. There aren't enough skilled Objective-C, Java, and multi-lingual statement-based language programmers to create all of these apps, nor, given the time it takes to write each app that way, is there enough advance notice for many of them.

Mobile also brings in the requirement to build apps with additional user interface functionality: They must be tailored to touch-centric interfaces (as opposed to mouse- and keyboard-centric) and make use of animation to preserve context in lieu of larger screen real-estate and for other purposes. Microsoft's Windows 8 and the new computers built to use it are also making the support of touch-UIs a requirement.

What is needed is a single development environment that lets you quickly build both mobile and other touch-enabled apps, as well as more traditional "desktop" applications that run on large screens with keyboards and a mouse. We need a development and deployment environment that can build apps that can access enterprise data in databases they have today. And we need a system that can be used productively and quickly by developers who are not fluent in Ruby, PHP, Java, and Objective-C, or the latest advances in JavaScript and CSS3.

Alpha Anywhere is such a system. That's why it matters. If you are serious about creating business applications for use in the enterprise in today's world, it is worth a look.

Alpha Anywhere is further along that continuum than other systems. It has deep functionality, letting you build quite complex, powerful, and meaningful applications, but it lets you do it with a minimal amount of coding. However, when you need to, you can drop into hand-code in languages that should be comfortable even to Access programmers. It lets companies build for the mobile world with the developers they already have. And, the same tool can make the companion big-screen applications for the desktop world as well as the desktop touch world of Windows 8.

How to learn about Alpha Anywhere
Just hearing the ideas behind Alpha Anywhere, like just hearing a description of an electronic spreadsheet, are not enough to explain what it is to someone who hasn't seen it. For many people, I've found, seeing some visuals helps. You want to see how it relates to the different parts of an application: How much of the problem does it solve? You'll want to see what type of mobile apps it can create. You'll want to see what it's like to use. And finally, you might want to actually try it and be guided through the building of a basic mobile app that can be the foundation to build something your company needs.

(I've added copies of some of the Alpha Anywhere videos to my YouTube channel and include them here. You'll either hear me or see my hands in most of this.)

The first video I created pretty much just states what I wrote here with visuals to represent aspects of an application, and then shows how Alpha Anywhere addresses those aspects, with screen captures and examples. I call it "What is Alpha Anywhere?" and it runs about 6 minutes:
Alpha Anywhere Technical Overview (5:59)

The next video that you might want to see is one that shows an "advanced" mobile app that was built in a couple of hours with Alpha Anywhere. It's running on an iOS device, and accesses a remote, multi-table, SQL database. (The definition of the actual app is included in Alpha Anywhere, and a step-by-step video of how to create it is being developed, along with a written script.)
Advanced Sample Application (2:39)

This next video shows some other, simpler apps, but with more polished user interfaces inspired by native code apps and running on a wide variety of devices:
Examples of Alpha Anywhere Applications (3:44)

Finally, this 6 minute video is a sped up recording of actually building a complete mobile app from scratch to give you the feeling of what it's like to use Alpha Anywhere (it is not a tutorial -- don't try to understand each step!).
Building the Conference Application (5:54)

If you find that you'd like to actually try Alpha Anywhere, or see additional videos about it, go to the Products page of the Alpha Software web site. You can download a 30-day free trial, too -- see the information there.

I know that many readers of my web site are not candidates for full-time use of Alpha Anywhere. Many of them, like me, love to code and are comfortable in statement-based languages. We wouldn't have been the first to adopt electronic spreadsheets either. However, we are the ones who often have to recommend a system to others, and sometimes we just want to get something done quickly for ourselves and get an app out the door. That is why it is worthwhile to know about Alpha Anywhere.

I hope this helps answer the question of why Alpha Anywhere matters. To understand the background of me recently joining them as CTO, see "Joining Alpha Software as CTO".

-Dan Bricklin, 26 June 2013

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