Living on the love of the Common people?

In recent months readers of this column may have noticed a trend developing in terms of theme. Basically, the call has been for...

In recent months readers of this column may have noticed a trend developing in terms of theme. Basically, the call has been for IBM to do more for the AS/400 in terms of its e-business competitiveness.

Now it seems that such a viewpoint has been expressed quite broadly at the recent Common meet in the US. Reports filtering through from the event show that senior independent consultants, and even AS/400 customers, hold similar opinions. It has been made known that IBM is unhappy with this state of affairs, in particular the supposed media bias against the world's leading mid range platform. Apparently, IBM cannot quite understand where its critics are coming from.

While there are examples of users deploying the AS/400 for e-business purposes, the bulk of the user community is still scratching around to see if the system could, or even should be, pointed in such a direction. And without wanting to repeat points excessively , it is clear to the unbiased that IBM puts more emphasis on platforms like the Netfinity server running Microsoft operating systems than the AS/400. There has also been a lot of fanfare recently for the renewed success of the RS/6000, with the parallel development of a standard form of 64-bit Unix under the Monterey 64 banner also getting much airplay.

The AS/400 is often the last server offering to get the ports of latest developments, with other types of server benefiting from a complete set of application development tools. The net effect is to make a conservative user community even more cautious about using the AS/400 for e-business. And many AS/400 users are now looking at Windows NT Server and Windows 2000 as the basis for putting the enterprise on the web, even if the AS/400 is retained as a central server in the background.

One hopes there is not a tragedy in the making here. In technology terms, the latest generations of the AS/400 are as good - if not better in some cases - than many of the competing systems. The AS/400 has retained its value add factor, such as high reliability, security, and performance. And while it is fair to say that the AS/400 does not get the early developments first, it does end up with the right set of solutions eventually. In addition, the business partners for the mid-market server group at IBM are also showing an innovative streak or two when it comes to e-business solutions. Yet there are two crucial issues that IBM has still to tackle successfully.

The problems with the AS/400 in the e-business context are its marketing, and the lack of skills and education among the next generation of upcoming developers and IT professionals. IBM will claim to be facing up to these challenges. It seems to be shifting its AS/400 sales message away from the technical qualities of the platform as a business-critical server. Instead, IBM now wants to bring out the people-oriented and psychological aspects of the AS/400's value proposition - that it is essentially a platform worth paying attention to. Through sponsorship deals with higher education institutions, the company is attempting to develop an AS/400 skills base for the future.

Even so, IBM knows it faces a quandary with the AS/400. The product has been around for so long, most people think it firmly rooted in the legacy category - despite all its fine up-to-date qualities.

In a market where the latest technology trends are lauded as the basis for the future - most notably Linux and Windows 2000 - such a profile is not an advantage for the AS/400. And for everyone on both the supply and user sides of the IT market, the next two years will mark out who will thrive and who will wither. With the browser fast becoming the universal client interface, what systems are running at the back-end is less relevant than guaranteed supply of software resources as a set of customised services. Thus the gauntlet is laid down to all the IT vendors.

This writer is quite convinced that IBM can turn the AS/400's market profile around, but it needs a radical departure from its current message. And the company also has to be realistic about the emerging market, where even less security lies for technology suppliers. All the vendors have to be seen to be fitting into a larger picture.

The AS/400 scene therefore has to be portrayed as co-operative, competitive, and somehow a bit more colourful than it currently appears. Also, in the next year or so Java is going to be capturing the attention of the new crop of developers. So why not make Java development on the AS/400 a selling point, in particular focusing on the cross-platform capability of the programming language.

IBM has changed much under Lou Gerstner, but elements of its old fortress mentality still prevail. So perhaps the breakthrough needed to fire up the AS/400's e-business future is to do as much with internal IBM politics as anything else.

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