A man stands in the middle of a warehouse aisle with a tablet in hand, looking up at the inventory on the hshelves.
By Brian Munroe | November 22, 2019

Getting into the WMS Business without “Getting into the WMS Business”

I know what you are thinking: what does it mean to do something without doing that thing? We’ll get there soon enough.

As a former supply chain consultant, I have seen many different Warehouse Management Systems (WMS). Some have been very old, some newer; some have been very easy to work with and some have been a complete nightmare. 

In fact, some of the most popular solutions out there still use Terminal Emulation (or telnet)-based “green screen” interfaces. This may be the prime reason why companies look to change solutions. So why aren’t more companies actually making the change?

Many legacy WMS solutions are still used by supply chain organizations because:

  • The solution has been designed or customized for users’ specific business needs
  • They have invested a great deal of time and money in their solutions and cannot rationalize the huge cost to change
  • The return on investment (ROI) doesn’t justify the cost to invest in a new solution, not to mention the disruption in operations, accounting and other business functions.

In other words: many Fortune 500 supply chain companies have crunched the numbers and determined that writing a homegrown solution is just plain cost-prohibitive, especially when they consider the ongoing cost of supporting these solutions.

At the end of the day, I think we can all agree that developing a WMS is no easy feat. Unless you have the necessary resources to research, design, develop, support and continue to improve your solution, you probably shouldn’t do it.

Now, you may be wondering why the headline of this post is telling you to “get into the WMS business.” I did just cite several challenges to developing a WMS solution. It must seem a little contrary, right? 

To be clear: I didn’t say that you had to build a homegrown system in order to get into the WMS business.

There is another (and, in my opinion, better) option: improve an existing WMS solution, without making changes to the back-end system.  


Start by modernizing the telnet user interface.

Why Telnet?

Telnet is a character-based technology that has existed for over 50 years. The interface was originally designed to run on a “dumb terminal” connecting to mainframes and minicomputers. When both wired and wireless ethernet were invented, dumb terminals became obsolete, but the applications these terminals ran continued to be useful on both PC workstations and mobile devices.

The various telnet protocols (IBM 5250/3270, VT100, etc.) correspond to models of the dumb terminal models, hence the name “Terminal Emulation”.  

Emulation “green screen” applications have had a great deal of success, but the interface has become tired and doesn’t reflect a modern look.  It doesn’t allow for much in the way of design, color or ease of use. 

A traditional green Telnet screen

Yet, the benefit to using TE to improve an existing WMS is the ease of customization to an application. Telnet is free form client, so typical changes need only be made on the backend.

This is your opportunity.

WMS Modernization via Telnet Empowers You to Add Features and Improve Processes

If you’re still worried that it would be too much on your team to modernize a WMS to your standards, know this: several of Zebra’s customers and value-added resellers (VAR) actually have the ability to modify the client side of the emulation-based solution today via Zebra’s All-Touch Terminal Emulation client. You already have what you need to  design an interface that modernizes the screens that WMS users see, without making changes to the backend system, using free tools. Designing new screens can be done by systems engineers or developers without having to write code.  

As an example, they could use the All-Touch Terminal Emulation Client to evolve a picker app in a warehouse from the image on the left to the image on the right below.

A side-by-side shot of a traditional WMS screen and a modern WMS screen

This would give users an easier interface to follow, accelerate the training process and even offer product photographs being pulled from a different source (perhaps a website with corresponding SKUs). It could also enable you to streamline the data entry process if you wanted by adding buttons that acknowlege the full quantity required for that transaction along with short pick options, so keyboards are used less often and only in exceptions.

And the beauty of this approach is that it can be done without changes to the WMS whatsoever. As a result, solution delivery timelines can range from a few days to several months, depending on the complexity of the project scope – with zero disruption of business.

The Payoff: Minimal Resource Requirement, Maximum Return on Investment (ROI)

There are many reasons why you or your customers (if you’re a VAR) may be interested in WMS modernization. One of them may be the transition from a Windows® Embedded/CE solution to an Android™ mobility solution. And, the ROI of these projects can be measured by several factors:

  • Do the changes add any functionality to improve the way a warehouse worker does his or her job?
  • Do the changes streamline process workflow?
  • Do the modernized screens speed up the onboarding process for new or temporary workers?
  • Do the changes make workers’ efforts more efficient or accurate?

Just know that, if WMS changes impact any or all of the above factors, the effort is poised to save you (or your customers) money, whether via increased worker productivity, workflow efficiency, task accuracy or improved inventory management.

The Takeaway

It really is possible to be in the WMS business without selling/building a WMS, and it may be in your business’ best interest to modernize the WMS.


Editor’s Note:

If you are interested in modernizing your WMS – or, if you’re a Zebra partner and need help modernizing a customer’s WMS – our team is ready to help. Leave a message for Brian below or reach out to his team here.


Warehouse and Distribution, Innovative Ideas,
Brian Munroe
Brian Munroe

Brian Munroe has been in the Automated ID industry for over 26 years in sales, management, consulting and technical roles. He currently serves as the Business Development and Product Manager for Zebra’s All-Touch Terminal Emulation solution. 

Zebra Developer Blog
Zebra Developer Blog

Are you a Zebra Developer? Find more technical discussions on our Developer Portal blog.

Zebra Story Hub
Zebra Story Hub

Looking for more expert insights? Visit the Zebra Story Hub for more interviews, news, and industry trend analysis.

Search the Blog
Search the Blog

Use the below link to search all of our blog posts.