Get Ready, Changes Are On the Horizon

Change is always hard, especially when you just don’t understand why something has to change, or that you think the change may not be for the better. If you look at the various news groups, listen at trade shows, get the plethora of newsletters e-mailed out to you, you must have heard that there are changes coming for the AS/400 platform.

There is no secret that the AS/400 group in Rochester had 7 negative quarters—IBM in total has had the last three down. Don’t worry—they are not going away. Far from it, they are revamping the 400 in a big way, but that will mean there will be some changes for us in the AS/400 community.

These kinds of discussions have been going on for years. I remember in the early 90’s, the big push was Unix boxes putting the 400 under, and then it was Windows NT. With all this, the machine is still around, winning all kinds of performance and cost of ownership awards. Unfortunately, that is not translating into increased new sales. There are plenty of upgrades – installed customers picking up another machine – but very few new placements. We all know that new customers are where long-term growth comes from.

Over the last 12 years the platform has seen tremendous growth, picked up a loyal following that is second only to the Mac followers, and earned IBM some pretty good money in the early 90’s. How can such a great platform be in such sad shape in the marketplace? For whatever it is worth here is my two cents worth.

The very success of the platform focused all the competitors against it. It was the AS/400 and the Mainframes that largely spawned the “I have to be Open” movement. The Unix competitors started this to combat the success of IBM. Then Microsoft jumped on board (Like NT is Open?). It used to be an advantage to have your software on the AS/400. Today, it’s a drawback unless you are on other platforms too.

So you have one great platform and dozens of competitors attacking it. Eventually something is going to give. Today we are seeing that give take place. Unfortunately, it is not just the competition that has hurt the 400. IBM has done it’s level best to get in it’s own way. Not all that long ago, in IBM’s midrange or at the time GSD division, they were known for having solid products and supporting them well. No one thought IBM’s equipment was the best or latest in technology. In fact, they never claimed to have that. DEC (remember them?) did claim the best technology. Where is DEC today? Swallowed up by a portable PC manufacturer!

So why, if IBM builds a better product in the same market, are they now having troubles with it? They forgot what got them there. It was not the larger systems that they are concentrating on now. Sure there may be more margin there (although, today I’m not sure that is true anymore), they forgot the true small and midsize company, whose support built the product line. They also forgot the small software and services companies that made it all work.

Having been in almost every partner program that IBM has had for this platform, I know from first hand experience how painful, costly, and unproductive it can be for smaller companies.

Microsoft and many others learned from IBM’s earlier successes and modeled their products after them. Then they learned and made them better. Almost all small shops are now using Microsoft products, because that is where they can get some assistance, their customers are asking for them, and the cost of entry is substantially lower. I still remember the ads from IBM – use the System 36 and System 38 because of the number of applications on them. There was a platform and any application that you needed. Today, the number is greater on other platforms. I did not say better, but the numbers claim just has no meaning today.

One other big technical mistake Rochester made with the 400 is not recognizing the shift to graphical interfaces until it was too late. They did not give developers the tools they needed, or make the changes in the operating system quick enough to handle the requirements of event driven programming or languages.

Additionally, the success of RPG is quickly becoming its biggest weakness. No other platform supports it anymore and very few schools teach it, and it is also not a “neat” language today like Java and C++ and VB. Their attempt at ILE RPG left most of the RPG developers scratching their heads asking why, what, and how come?

If it sounds like I am down on IBM and the AS/400 – I am. Not because it is a bad business choice or the platform is bad. Just the opposite, it is a great platform, requiring much less support than anything else out there, with by far the best hardware; all of these reasons make me mad, that with all the investment I and many others have made in the platform, we find now that the future lies somewhere else. Of course that is the very nature of technology – unless Bill buys the US and makes it illegal to compete with Microsoft, there is something out there that will give Microsoft a real headache.But – chin up – there is still plenty of work out there on the older technology – now where is my wireless handheld?

John Bussert is president of Swift Technologies (Marengo, Ill.), a company specializing in AS/400 and Windows NT software.