You Want Fries With That?

Why is it so hard to buy an AS/400? It's not rocket science! A computer shouldn't be this hard to buy---unless IBM doesn't want you to. Dell wants you to buy Dell servers, and they make it easy to do over the Web. IBM wants you to believe they're an e-business, so shouldn't it be as easy to buy an AS/400 from IBM as it is to buy a server from Dell?

Apparently not. Although IBM has a fancy Web-based AS/400 configuration tool that allows you to completely configure and price an AS/400, you're stopped just short of actually buying one there. Instead of asking for your credit card number or purchase order information, it asks if you want an IBM sales specialist to call you.

IBM will say that an AS/400 is not a PC, and selling one like a PC just can't be done. OK, IBM, I'll give you that one. But you can't convince me that selling an AS/400 isn't like selling an enterprise-class Unix server, and I can buy an RS/6000 or a Sun Solaris online without any trouble at all.

I understand that AS/400's are highly customized and cannot be mass produced, but their degree of customization is analogous to a typical Unix box, so why can't buying an AS/400 over the Web be just as easy as buying a Sun Unix box or an RS/6000?

Thinking that the trouble might be something inherent in Web-based ordering, I next tried the phone, which is even more frustrating than trying to buy an AS/400 over the Web!

Apparently IBM didn't want to sell me one directly, pushing me instead to a business partner. Fundamentally I have no problem with buying an AS/400 through a business partner, but IBM didn't seem to know which one to send me to. They suggested three, none of which seemed very interested in selling to me unless I was going to package the server with a solution and resell it. All of this was very discouraging.

The idea that IBM is discouraging you from buying is ridiculous, so one must deduce that something else is going on. In all my attempts to buy an AS/400, I made it perfectly clear that I wanted the 400, but I didn't want any third-party software. This meant I ran afoul of IBM Annoying Marketing Strategy Number 1, better known as the, "We don't sell servers, we sell solutions" strategy.

Apparently IBM has no idea what to do with a customer who just wants to buy a server, not a solution. Informed buyers beware...IBM has other plans for you.

Remember when you'd go to McDonalds and order a Quarter Pounder and a soft drink? Invariably, the cashier would ask, "You want fries with that?" My response was always, "If I wanted fries, I would've asked for fries, and why are you wasting my time!"

This is what IBM is doing by insisting that a sales specialist call before you can buy an AS/400. When they refer you to business partners, they're trying to move the high-margin "value adds" these business partners offer.

When the AS/400 was introduced the "AS" stood for Application System. Later the "AS" changed to Advanced Server. What "AS" stands for is irrelevant---what matters is the capabilities of the system. The loyalty of AS/400 customers is unquestioned. It's a solid, reliable system that can be used to host packaged or custom applications. It can do whatever you want---that is, if IBM would actually let you buy one.

My message to IBM is simple. If you want to move more AS/400s, simplify the buying process. If someone visits the IBM Web site and knows what they want, let them buy it there. If they call and know what they want, sell it to them over the phone. Most of all, understand that not everyone wants fries with that.