Volume 15, Number 24 -- June 12, 2006

Project Prometheus: Playing with Fire

Published: June 12, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

If you browse the various forums of the OS/400 community when you are bored, like I know many of you do, you might have recently run across something called "Project Prometheus." There has been a lot of speculation about what this super-secret project might be, ranging from a revamped marketing campaign to a new line of System i servers. I have done some digging, and I can tell you a little about it.

The one thing I am not going to tell you is exactly who is behind Project Prometheus. Prometheus was a Greek Titans who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, his own creation. Zeus ultimately punished Prometheus by chaining him to a mountain and having his liver eaten by an eagle; every day it would grow back, and the punishment lasted for 30,000 years, according to legend. In the modern IBM world, the closest analogy to this punishment would be to have to work for IBM Rochester. Suffice it to say, when the people behind Project Prometheus are ready to talk, they will talk. If they never do--and they may have good reasons not to--we might never know who is behind Project Prometheus. And that, in itself, might be a better strategy, so you people behind the project, you might want to think along the lines of Mission Impossible: Keep your identity secret, just to do the job.

The job that I am talking about entails a number of different things, and I am certain that I have only had enough of the plan revealed to me to do whatever part that IT Jungle and its readers will be asked to play. First and foremost, according to my sources, Project Prometheus will be yet another attempt at building a community to help promote and evangelize the OS/400 platform. (Yeah, I know I was supposed to say the System i platform, but most of you are still running OS/400 out there.)

I know what you are thinking. Wasn't this what the COMMON user group has done for decades? Isn't this what the iSeries Nation organization was supposed to be?

Well, COMMON may have started out as a user group that juxtaposed the needs of the users against the commands and needs of IBM in the midrange system and server market, but it has changed--I did not say evolved or devolved, but just changed--into an organization that is essentially a means for IBM to disseminate information to the OS/400 community, a means for select members of the OS/400 community to question IBM (by select, I refer to those who have the time and money to travel to COMMON events), and a means for members of the OS/400 community to get training and see solutions in the expo. There are, of course, the social aspects of COMMON, which is why many of us attend. It's good to meet friends and colleagues. All of this is valuable, of course. But it is not an OS/400 community. COMMON may have over 20,000 members, but only a few thousand attend each biannual event. There are probably 500,000 to 600,000--and maybe even more--OS/400 professionals out there in the world. COMMON reaches only a fraction of them, and an even smaller fraction actually reach COMMON. You could add up every regional and local user group and COMMON into one ubergruppe and you still would not, I believe, have a majority slice of the OS/400 community (although this slice would be representative in many ways).

Back in spring 2001, you will remember, IBM at COMMON launched the iSeries Nation, which was supposed to be an advocacy group for the just-rebranded AS/400 platform. By the spring of 2002, some 45,000 of you joined the club, and IBM was hoping to have 100,000 members by the end of 2002. Of course, the economy was in the tank then, no one had any money to spend on anything, particularly the iSeries Division, and aside from rebranding COMMON's traditional Sound Off session to the iSeries Nation Town Hall Meeting, hosting a bunch of Webcasts, and putting out a few IBM-sponsored white papers to promote the iSeries, not much ever became of the iSeries Nation. In fact, if you try to go to its Web site, it points you to the System i Resource Center. I am not even sure when iSeries Nation died, but it is surely dead--if you could ever call it alive. And the iSeries Nation blog, which was apparently launched in March 2005, has precisely one message in it: announcing that the iSeries Nation blog is up and running on Blojsom, a Java-based blog program, on an iSeries server.

There were a number of problems with iSeries Nation, and Project Prometheus aims to not make the same mistakes twice. First of all, iSeries Nation was created and controlled by IBM. It was designed to be a communication vehicle to promote the iSeries and to engage the OS/400 community in that communication, but it was muzzled by IBM and the community had very little say in it at all--save for the Sound Off, of course. And I can tell you, many more people read the Sound Off transcriptions over the years inside The Four Hundred than actually attended those sessions at COMMON. So the organizers behind Project Prometheus know that whatever OS/400 community they try to stimulate and enable to spread the System i gospel, it cannot be controlled by IBM. In fact, according to the documents I have seen, the goal is for the community to be self-financing within two years.

The other thing that the Project Prometheus community has to do is enable members of the OS/400 community to defend the platform and help promote its use in businesses the world over. In the old AS/400 days, this is a job that IBM and the army of independent software vendors, who lead with the AS/400, did--and did with remarkable success. But the homogenization of IBM's server lines and the porting of those RPG-OS/400 applications to other languages, operating systems, and databases means that ISVs don't lead with the AS/400, iSeries, or System i any more--they lead with their applications and will recommend whatever platform the customer chooses. IBM doesn't have a direct sales force to speak of, except at the very largest OS/400 accounts, and the resellers are not selling, they are taking orders from customers who already have the iSeries. IBM has a few thousand new customers a year these days; the company doesn't talk much about the fact that it used to be 12,000 a year, and it certainly doesn't say how many leave each year. All I know for sure is that we have lost somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 accounts since the late 1990s, if I trust the numbers IBMers have given me over the years.

While IBM has been experimenting with viral marketing techniques in a very limited way over the past couple of years--the Legends of iSeries campaigns and the Podcastaways podcasting site are the two examples I can think of--Project Prometheus is going to have to do more. It is going to have to overlay and assist--some might say aid and abet--the various parts of the OS/400 community as it currently exists: users, ISVs, resellers, user groups of all sizes and geographies, IT publications with an OS/400 focus, universities and colleges, and even IBMers. The idea is to give them the resources to help them promote the OS/400 platform. Exactly what those resources are, it turns out, is largely up to you.

So, to help the Project Prometheus collaborators figure out what you, the OS/400 community need, I have created an email alias in our Contacts Page. At the bottom of the long list of contacts is a tick box for Prometheus, who has the title of Rebel With A Cause. I have created a pass-through so these emails go directly to the Project Prometheus people; no one at IT Jungle will read the messages that you send, but by giving Project Prometheus an alias on our site, we can protect the identities of the people behind the project at the same time as soliciting your input. Tell them what you need. Don't be shy.

Having opened up the communication channel, I have a few thoughts on the Project Prometheus effort to energize and focus the OS/400 community.

The problem with such a community-driven, community-funded System i guerilla marketing campaign is that it expects people to do the job that IBM should be allowing its own System i marketeers and engineers to do with IBM money and resources. While I have always been ready to invest in the OS/400 market--the establishment of what has become IT Jungle is the biggest personal investment I have ever made in my life in terms of raw cash, and I won't even talk about time and sweat--I may not be normal. And, given the passion that many of you bring to the OS/400 community, you may not be, either.

I had my reasons for keeping alive OS/400 publications for IT managers, programmers, and administrators, not the least of which being that I love my job and, I have learned, I love giving jobs to other people. For years I have said that those who can employ, must employ, which is a corollary to those who can work, must work. My needs as a writer, the needs of my employees seeking an employer, and what I perceived as the need of the OS/400 market for good information about that market came together to help me create Guild Companies, the owner of IT Jungle, in July 2001. Don't misunderstand me. I am not complaining. Being an employer has been the most difficult and most rewarding thing I have ever done professionally.

My fear is that whatever community arises out of Project Prometheus will ask the members of the OS/400 community to make very large personal commitments, in terms of time and money, to help sell a machine that IBM ought to be smart enough to try to sell as a weapon against less capable platforms. We all know we mean Windows, which owns the entry and midrange market for business applications these days. This is a lot to ask. Which is why I think IBM will need to sweeten the deal, to make the community benefit if its efforts to bolster the System i platform actually work. Enlightened self-interest works.

And before Project Prometheus launches, we must also concede that in an IT market where selling complexity helps IT managers build empires and IT vendors build fortunes, a machine that cuts out complexity like the OS/400 platform doesn't exactly fit in. This is anathema to most IT organizations, either through ignorance or choice. This is a very big fight to take on.

The main thing you need to know for now is that Project Prometheus is real and the intent of those behind it is to play with fire. And just like Prometheus, they are doing so because their hearts are in the right place, and possibly in defiance of authority.


Midrange-L comments on Project Prometheus

Enlightened Citizens, Angus the IT Chap blog

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