Volume 8, Number 13 -- April 1, 2008

IBM Changes Name Back to AS/400, Promises Return to Glory, TV Ads

Published: April 1, 2008

by Cervantes

IBM today announced that it has renamed its venerable midrange server line the AS/400, the computer's original name when it was launched in 1988, in a bid to prop up sagging sales. The name change was met with screams of joy from attendees of the annual COMMON user conference at the Gaylord Opryland resort in Nashville, Tennessee, where they broke into impromptu line dances. The computer giant also promised to run AS/400 television ads at its target audience, starting with next week's episode of "The Simpsons."

Tuesday's surprise decision to return to the well-known AS/400 moniker was made by Mark Shearer, who was also named general manager of the reinstated AS/400 division. "This is a great day for the AS/400 and the fine people who make up the AS/400 community," Shearer shouted from a podium at the COMMON conference. "No longer will we wander the waterless deserts of naming ambiguity!" he said, leaping from the stage and crowd surfing upon the extended arms of adoring RPG programmers, stunned resellers, and grinning senior systems analysts. "We have returned to the promised land to start a new day! I am AS/400! I am AS/400! I am AS/400! I am AS/400!" he chanted with the crowd.

IBM also changed the name of the AS/400's operating system back to OS/400, its original name from 1988 through 2004. Shearer explained the move was necessary to maintain continuity in the operating system, which he explained is really the AS/400's greatest asset. "As you know, the underlying hardware of the AS/400 may change--it must change, in fact, to stay current with customer needs," Shearer said. "But the power and value of the AS/400 architecture truly is in the software, and OS/400 is the embodiment of that. Fooling with that would be a huge mistake."

COMMON goers applauded the surprise announcements. The return of the AS/400 and OS/400 was given two thumbs up by Johnson Frankenbrenner, a one-armed systems administrator for Arch Rival, a logistics services company based in Wannakissime, North Dakota. "The AS/400 is the greatest business computing platform of the past, the present, and the future. I'm glad that IBM executives are finally recognizing that," he said.

Billy Bob Thornbird, a computer operator who works the midnight shift at a fake dog excrement manufacturing plant outside of Houston, Texas, was caught unawares by the name change. "You mean it wasn't called the AS/400 before?" he asked. "Everybody I know has always called it that. What else would it be?"

Indeed, the AS/400 has gone by several names since it was launched nearly 20 years ago. For the first 12 years, it went by its correct name: the AS/400. But beginning in 2000, IBM embarked upon a remarkable run of poor naming decisions.

It all started with the big "Mach 1" re-branding fiasco, when its four distinct lines of computer servers were renamed "eServers." Unfortunately, instead of just using the standard garden variety "e" found in the upper left portion of your keyboard--or even "E," a frequently used uppercase variant used by hundreds of languages around the world--IBM's crack legal department decided it was best to invent a completely new character, called the "IBM e-business logo," which was an "e" that had a squiggly tail, similar to an ampersand. Unfortunately, the AS/400's new name was misspelled from the very beginning, in part because the IBM e-business logo could only be typed using specially designed keyboards that IBM sold for $9,999 each, causing extensive damage to name recognition. IBM's internal brand awareness metric, "Eyeballs 'N Ear-Holes," also plummeted 41 percent, according to an internal source in IBM marketing who requested her name (Shirley Urjoken of 595 Fig Street, Armonk, New York) not be used discussing internal IBM data.

AS/400 old-timers who failed to grasp the broad synergies inherent in the e(logo)Server concept suffered permanent mental and emotional damage due to the move to the e(logo)Server iSeries moniker back in 2000. The lucky ones, who managed to get themselves checked into treatment centers before the name change sapped their will to live, are still contributing to society through their jobs as janitors, line cooks, and "American Idol" contestants. Unfortunately, a good percentage of the AS/400 old-timers did not get the help they needed, and today there are still thousands of RPG programmers and systems administrators locked up in state prisons, wasting away in retirement homes, or wandering the streets, babbling incoherently about sub-procedures, C specs, and "the cycle."

But e(logo)server iSeries was just the beginning of what seemed to AS/400 devotees like a bad dream that would never end. In the spring of 2004, with the launch of OS/400 V5R3 and new servers based on the Power5 processors, IBM ditched the e(logo)server iSeries--which customers were just getting used to--for a new name: the e(logo)server i5, or just the i5 for short. Similarly, OS/400 was renamed i5/OS. Then, in early 2006, IBM shuffled the deck yet again when it introduced the System i (sometimes referred to as the System i5 or "that f@$%#*g box") with the introduction of i5/OS V5R4 and new servers based on the Power 5+ processors.

The move back to the AS/400 name shows that IBM is not so out of step with the AS/400 community as a whole, that it recognizes the continuity of a good brand name (like the AS/400) is more important than the temporary boost in visibility that renaming a product every two years can bring, and that it does, in fact, listen to and care about its customers.

Another bolt from the blue was the revelation that IBM will run television advertisements promoting the AS/400, long a sticking point among the AS/400 faithful. Shearer said IBM will put together a series of AS/400 ads similar to the "Mac vs. PC" ads that have proven so popular. "We need to reach the next generation of IT decision makers with the message that the AS/400 is the most reliable, secure, and flexible server they can use to run their business," the AS/400 GM said. "What better way to extend this message to the nation's youth than through the miracle of television?"

The decision to run TV ads was applauded by Thomas Bitterroot, a senior IT analyst with a prominent analyst firm in Boston, Massachusetts. "IBM finally 'gets' it,'" Bitterroot says. "The IT decision makers of tomorrow can be found today sitting in front of the TV, where they watch cartoons while getting fat and avoiding chores and homework--basically becoming slovenly blobs that contribute nothing to society. Reaching this influential group of IT decision makers is critical, but it's not easy. As Microsoft has shown, it's nearly impossible to dumb down enterprise IT too much in this quest to 'touch' this very special group. I look forward to IBM setting a new 'low-water' mark in IT television advertising with its new ad campaign."

According to Shearer, IBM's edgy but hip new ad campaign, titled "I is a Big Strong AS/400, You Is a Stupid Little PC Server, So What Are You Going To Do About It, Punk?" is scheduled to debut with next weekend's "The Simpsons."

IBM's decision to run TV ads is a tacit admission that its previous marketing efforts have been an abject failure. Under the previous strategy, IBM relied upon business partners, software developers, and resellers to do IBM's bidding by sneaking coded messages indirectly referring to the AS/400 product line onto 18 of the World Wide Web's current 35 quadrillion pages. Three AS/400 customers have apparently seen these references, according to feedback left on "How did you hear about us?" forms IBM encourages customers to fill out.

However, not everybody is pleased with IBM's return to the AS/400 brand. Several independent software vendors (ISVs) at COMMON expressed their displeasure in the move. "We just finished printing new brochures using the System i name," says Kyle Pettry, vice president of marketing for HUF Systems, an ISV that develops AS/400 backup software. "It will cost $10,000 to re-print the brochures. Thanks a lot, IBM!"

Editor's Note: Happy April Fool's Day!

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