Albert's Analysis: Communicating IBM's AS/400 "Business Value"

Larger, smaller, faster, cheaper – is there an IT vendor not making such promises these days? How do you separate promises from truths and fact from fiction? IBM has a product it can truthfully boast about. So why doesn't it?

Internally, IBM calls its AS/400 enterprise system "the best computer a business can buy." The system's speed of deployment, says IBM, easily tops competitors like Hewlett-Packard or Sun Microsystems. But if all this is true, and if faster deployment really does translate to practical business advantage, isn't it time to get the word out. Otherwise, IBM is only doing half its job.

Big Blue certainly has good news to report, including its claim that its AS/400 technology was the first on the scene with the idea that has since been mimicked by the Java Virtual Machine. Plus, the AS/400 was the first system to market with fully available, 64-bit RISC technology, while Wintel is still struggling to get there.

Our industry is characterized by the "bandwagon effect," and over time, competitive offerings from players like Wang and Digital have come and gone. Yet IBM's AS/400 has been around since 1988, and continues to improve.

For many business managers, it's enough to know that their computer system can effectively manage their day to day operations. IBM ships AS/400 systems with integrated base hardware and software components to accommodate standard business needs. However, with many other platforms, the customer is required to buy components separately and then integrate them. The AS/400 has over 30,000 applications available worldwide.

Companies like Chase Manhattan, Disney and Nike use AS/400s to run their business. Even Bill Gates has AS/400s running Microsoft's financial and distribution systems -- that's "mission critical" data, as IBMers like to say.

All these companies are in the business of making money, If they're saying, "Don't dazzle me with technology. Help me do my job," can we blame them?

A design principle in the AS/400, called TIMI (Technology-Independent Machine Interface), acts as a kind of "table top." Applications have no knowledge of underlying hardware or software that remains under the TIMI interface. So to existing programs, no recompiling or rewriting is needed -- even when the underlying hardware technology changes dramatically.

No industry changes as quickly as the technology sector. For a product to survive, it has to not only accommodate present needs, but anticipate future ones. That takes flexibility and adaptability, tall orders for companies working hard just to keep pace. IBM's AS/400 development laboratory is granted an average of 70 new patents each year for technical innovations. And this month IBM unveiled a new top-end "North Star"-based AS/400 that has twice the processing capability of today's largest AS/400.

IBM has the right idea by enabling its AS/400 with so much power, adaptability and speed. Now it needs to break through the competitive clutter. If its focus is truly on business applications, it's time to let the business customer in on the secret. Advertising and marketing can't be taken lightly. If so much time and money has gone into the perfecting the product, let's see a similar commitment to creating a visibility.

Let's face it. A computer is boring business to an executive who sees it simply as a necessary evil. We all know these folks, because they're all around us. An enterprise server won't catch anyone's eye just by quietly doing its job well. So if it takes the equivalent of a laboratory Nobel Prize winner to create a stir in the marketing arena, then IBM, go for it. Don't let a market leadership opportunity pass you by.


Sam Albert is president of Sam Albert Associates (Scarsdale, N.Y.), a consulting firm that specializes in developing strategic corporate relationships.