iSociety Connects System i Professionals

Sometimes having the world’s most active and loyal user group isn’t enough: AS/400 enthusiasts need social networks, too.

Sometimes having the world’s most active and loyal user group isn’t enough: AS/400 enthusiasts need social networks, too. That’s the upshot of news from COMMON, the seminal System i (nee, iSeries and AS/400) user group, which late last month unveiled a new social network for System i professionals dubbed iSociety (

COMMON officials hope iSociety can become a meeting place for System i enthusiasts—especially those who use, sell, or are interested in learning more about System i and its related universe of products, along with the history of the AS/400 (or iSeries, or System i) itself. Currently, iSociety has its own Web home—operated by COMMON and its constituents—and offers a variety of services, including a business and social networking site; a so-called “Truth” site (sponsored by IBM); a System I information portal (provided by Penton Technology Media); and the requisite grassroots marketing site, which gives users a chance to create “viral” Flash videos and produce their own commercials.

The goal, in every case, is to connect System i boosters with IT pros who are at least open to the possibility of—if not actively searching for—alternatives to the Wintel status quo. In other words, if a die-hard fan base has helped sustain Apple, Harley Davidson, and (for three decades) the Grateful Dead, why shouldn’t it do the same for System i?

“Few products are so beloved as to generate a loyal community of users. The Apple Macintosh and Harley Davidson motorcycles are two well-known examples, but some may be surprised to learn that there is a group of people just as loyal to a business system—the System i,” said Beverly Russell, president of the COMMON Board of Directors, in a statement. “The reason people are so loyal to solutions like the Mac and System i is because they make their lives easier, providing a simple, easy-to-use solution that delivers on its promises while eliminating the complexity and security problems that hinder many IT departments.”

As ideas go, iSociety isn’t a bad one, suggests veteran industry watcher Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT Inc. Far from being a gimmick, it should make for a no-brainer addition to one of the industry’s most vibrant user groups. On the other hand, King cautions, iSociety isn’t likely to contribute to a System i rebirth that’s analogous to (not to mention commensurate with) those of Apple and Harley-Davidson. “The rampant success of sites … such as MySpace combined with a never-ending buzz around Web 2.0 issues has elevated Web-enabled ‘social networking’ to a high level of visibility,” King points out.

There’s a kind of irony here, too, King notes. In a certain sense, he says, technology user groups have long enabled a kind of social networking by sneakernet. “As the commercial Internet evolved, user groups offered places to exchange news and information, and enjoy the support of like-minded peers. Today, with so many social networking sites competing for similar audiences, creating one that attracts large numbers of visitors to ‘hang out in’ is no small feat,” he points out. In iSociety’s case, of course, that problem is already solved: COMMON’s enormous user base provides a built-in audience.

“While many platform-specific user groups drifted into obscurity, COMMON remains healthy and robust, claiming about 4,000 individual and corporate members, representing over 20,000 users of IBM’s System i solutions,” King argues. “The group hosts two conferences every year, where members can receive updates, share tips, and swap information.”

While COMMON itself is stilling going strong, System i itself has hit still another rocky patch. After revenues surged for much of last year—inspiring hope that System i, like Big Blue’s zSeries mainframe line, was benefiting from a minicomputer renaissance of sorts—sales slid during Q4 of 2005 (by 12 percent), and continued to decline over the first two quarters of 2006, too. In Q1, for example, System i revenues were off a whopping 22 percent, while Q2 revenues were down by 7 percent.

Excluding 2005, in which System i notched strong first, second, and third quarter showings, Big Blue’s minicomputer fortunes have been more down (10) than up (6)—on a per-quarter basis—since 2001. Only last year, when IBM announced a round of System i upgrades and aggressively promoted that platform in a wide variety of venues (splurging on the requisite Web and print advertisements, along with TV advertising buys, too), did System i buck this up-down-and-down-again quarterly trend.

There’s no denying that System i has been an inconsistent post-millennial seller, but it nevertheless remains a deeply entrenched force to be reckoned with, thanks in part to the efforts of COMMON and the passion of System i acolytes, King points out.

What’s more, and as last year’s resurgent run proved, Big Blue can move System i boxes—when it puts its mind to it, anyway. This summer, IBM signaled its intent to do as much, bringing in pSeries executive Peter Small (who is credited with helping to catapult pSeries from last-to-first in overall Unix revenues) to oversee System i ISV and partner sales.

Meanwhile, in the midst of tumult, there’s COMMON, the bedrock on which the enduring success of System i is built. King says COMMON’s iSociety gambit might amount to an effort to shore up that bedrock for the future, too.

“Historically, System i has enjoyed one of the IT industry’s most rabidly enthusiastic customer groups, who embraced the platform for its legendary reliability, availability, and security features. But at the same time, those customers … are aging, [while] newer generations of technical professionals have grown up viewing the world through rose-colored Windows,” he indicates. Getting these younger folks to open the door and understand the opportunities and benefits of real-world business computing is one of iSociety’s primary goals.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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