editorial: Platform Schizophrenia

I believe there is a special place in hell reserved for agnostics. Not religious agnostics, mind you, but platform agnostics. IBM is platform agnostic. They won’t promote one platform vs. another, they expect the solutions available on the platforms to drive the sale. If SAP R/3 runs bests on AIX, then you buy AIX. If you want App X, and it only runs on the AS/400, then you buy the AS/400.

You might wonder how IBM’s marketing schizophrenia affects you, the customer. You have already made your platform decision, so why do you care if IBM can’t decide to promote any one specific platform?

The reason is simple: long term viability of your platform of choice, in this case (I hope), the AS/400. Although a platform can survive a long, long time without growth, or even with negative growth, once a platform starts the downward spiral, it’s hard to bring it back.

There are two main factors that lead to continued growth. First, a company needs to keep the platform current. It has to aggressively bring new technologies to the platform, and provide for interoperability with the new platforms that are bound to come along.

Second, a company needs to promote it. Once a company has decided that there is no longer a market for the platform outside the installed base, it’s curtains for said platform.

I have a question for you: Does Digital, I mean Compaq, sell systems running VMS anymore? I couldn’t tell you one way or the other, but I bet they don’t. At least not new systems. Replacements and upgrades into the installed base, but I doubt Compaq is trying to convince anyone to buy VMS.

Back before the Compaq buyout, Digital decided that the market for VMS was dead. Was there a good reason to make this decision? Maybe, maybe not, but they decided anyway. Technically, VMS was a sound operating system for running mission-critical applications. The move to the Alpha chip ensured that systems running VMS could keep pace with performance advances.

So why did Digital decide that VMS was not the OS they wanted to push? The NT revolution, that’s why. Digital saw more money in high volume, low ticket NT sales than low volume, high ticket VMS sales. This prompted Digital to stop promoting VMS and VMS died a slow death.

The situation with IBM is slightly different. IBM’s problem is that they refuse to let anyone in the server group aggressively market the platform they are responsible for. This is platform agnosticism.

Unofficial or official, corporate policy dictates that the marketing groups responsible for the four platforms that make up the server group can’t position their platform against the other platforms in the group. The only problem is that they aren’t just competing for sales against other IBM platforms, they are competing against similar platforms from HP, Sun, Compaq, etc.

It is clear to me that the AS/400 has the technical sophistication to compete with Windows 2000 and Unix. It runs on a RISC chip that has the potential to keep pace with performance advances, and it supports the infrastructure necessary to interoperate with other platforms.

Still the AS/400 marketing group can’t go out in the market and say, “Hey, don’t buy Windows 2000, it’s buggy, untested and, by the way, we’ve got a platform over here that is ideal for running e-business applications.”

Recently, I spoke to an IBM solution provider who thinks the AS/400 is a dynamite platform for running Java applications. Does their application run on other IBM platforms? Sure, but it runs best on the AS/400 since the Java Virtual Machine is below the MI and optimized for the platform. Can the AS/400 group tell you this? No, they’ll just tell you that the solution is available on all their platforms and let you make up your mind on your own.

Well I’ve got news for you IBM: other people are out their promoting their platforms and wouldn’t think twice about telling their customers why they shouldn’t buy an AS/400. Why do you have a problem telling the customer why they should?