"i for Business" is attracting community and vendor support.
The announcement on April 2, 2008, that IBM has created the new Power Server brand, combining both the System i and the System p, took few analysts by surprise. But a key question still remained: How would IBM's loyal System i community react?
This question was put to several well-known, die-hard supporters of the System i, individuals who make their livings as customer consultants and ISV representatives or were once IBM engineers and developers who have intimate knowledge of the platform.
Guarded Enthusiasm over New Promises
There was general enthusiasm from these loyal System i aficionados but also a slight sense of ennui.
There was a time, not so long ago, when fans of the System i appeared to be members of an exclusive cult and an almost exclusive market. And why not? The IBM System i offered them everything they wanted in a server platform: ease of use, scalability, massive power, and almost painless upgrades. At COMMON conferences and on Web sites across the Internet, the saga of the System i (a.k.a. iSeries, AS/400, System/38) was legendary.
But IBM didn't seem to know how to handle that loyalty, and over the 20-year lifespan of the platform (the AS/400 was introduced in 1988), the company struggled with what to do with its valuable customer asset. The platform was so unique, so advanced, and so resilient that its own corporate officers were often mystified by the customer loyalty.
Now the new IBM Power Server brand holds promise to change both market perceptions and customer expectations as ISVs and consultants adjust their marketing message.
Said one consultant: "Frankly, I've become philosophical about these changes. It gives ISVs another reason to talk to our customer base. Now we can call them up and tell them we support 'i' and 'Power.' That's the good news. The bad news is that we have to send out a bunch of press releases, redo fact sheets, update databases, etc., all to say 'Power' and 'i.' "
But how will the customers themselves react? Just two years ago (2006), the IBM System i was renamed from the IBM iSeries, a name that itself had been changed from the IBM AS/400 in 2000.
At the time of the last round of rebranding, IBM General Manager Mark Shearer promised customers and ISVs some stability in the branding game. The problem, acknowledged by Shearer at the time, was that IBM customers had still not accepted the first name change (to iSeries), making it difficult for management to understand what was running their businesses.
In fact, to this day, many customers still refer to the System i as "AS/400," even though the underlying hardware platform has changed three or more times in the last 20 years. This has made it difficult for companies to find programmers and software services for the System i, and often the only means of finding those services is to Google "AS/400."
Said one consultant: "The real question for me is this: In all this, did IBM bring 'sexy' back to the AS/400, or did they just mess up the whole naming thing, burying a dang good OS under another layer of marketing hype? Time will tell."
A Wonderful Thing for the i Community
Yet another developer, who is very active in the System i community, has a very enthusiastic attitude:
"I think this is a wonderful thing for the i community. While we complained about the AS/400 being IBM's stepchild, we are now one of the three IBM children in the family photos. The commitment IBM has shown to the i operating system will help us tremendously. The new hardware will also allow us to compete with vendors selling inferior Windows solutions. I believe this will be a similar story for most i vendors."
Getting the Word Out
Yet, the larger question remaining will be how to get the word out to System i customers, and that will be expensive.
Said one ISV: "The worst thing for us is that we will have to change all of our marketing material (brochures, Web site, product listings, etc.) and manuals yet again. This will cost our company several thousand dollars. We just recently got everything changed to reflect the System i name."
He continued with some practical concerns: "Another problem is that search engines (like Google) will return a whole lot of unrelated results when you put in a keyword of just 'i' and let's say 'programming.' In the past, if you keyed in 'iSeries programming,' you would get specific results for programming on the iSeries."
So, from the marketing perspective, the major problem is no longer differentiating the System i from other IBM platforms (because there is no difference) but simply identifying who is providing services to the new Power Systems platform.
Yet the general opinion expressed by those with the most to gain in announcements is positive:
"I think that this announcement makes so much sense for the i community that there is no fear to be addressed," said one developer. "All customers should know so that we have an opportunity to leverage the news and bring the community together. The news was well received at COMMON, but I think there is a danger of underestimating the size of the news."
Said another, "I really do think that the biggest problems lie in spreading the word. If IBM means what they say and includes the new 'i' logo in all Power advertising, then 'i' will begin to get the general awareness promotion it needs. After that, it is a question of finding a way to ensure that senior management knows what 'i' means and how it is a better solution than Windows, etc."
But isn't this the same old problem? Getting management's attention?
The Last Laugh Is on...i!
This is the current irony about the announcement of the Power Systems at COMMON: that a superior server platform and operating system--struggling for more than 10 years to attract a market following--should be at last subsumed into a marketing message that has even less potential visibility.
Don't get me wrong! The new Power System platform, with its incredible Power6 virtualization engine, hypervisor, partitioning, and multiple operating system potential, is by far the most exciting piece of midrange technology to come out of IBM since the AS/400.
But the "i for Business" marketing message that IBM is employing seems like a throwback to the cute twists of phrases that typified the clumsy messages with which IBM has tried--and failed--in the past. What does it really say to a CFO or CTO? Where is the value statement of i, except in its reinforcement of sad episodes in IBM's misbegotten categorization of its "best-kept secret"?
IBM Power Systems will succeed in transforming System i customers, but it's more likely to transform them to AIX. Will it attract new customers to the newly re-branded "i for Business" operating system?
"i" for one don't think so. And maybe that's what IBM has been after all along.
What do "u" think?