Project Prometheus Unchained as iSociety
Published: September 18, 2006
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Finally, after months of secrecy--or something closely approximating it--the Prometheus Project, which seeks to build a grassroots community to promote the System i server platform, will be unveiled--perhaps unchained is a better metaphor?--by COMMON, the OS/400 and i5/OS user group, at its semi-annual meeting in Miami Beach, Florida, during the opening session of the event. The first phase of Prometheus will be a System i community called iSociety.
As I explained in last week's issue, the concept behind iSociety, which is located at http://isociety.common.org for now but which will switch to the domain http://www.isociety.org eventually, draws upon the news, video, and social networking sites that your kids all know about and maybe you do, too. Conceptually, it mixes something akin to the SlashDot content and forum preferred by the open source community, the MySpace social networking site, and the YouTube video streaming site. To become a member of the iSociety community, you will create a profile.
IBM is, of course, the main financial force behind iSociety right now, but it has correctly surmised, after the demise of its iSeries Nation efforts from a few years ago to build a community, that Big Blue is not the best organization to steer a System i community. I would go so far as to say that, by definition, IBM should not be allowed to steer such a community, even though it may be allowed to contribute mightily to it. And, to its credit, IBM has ceded the domain name, a bunch of skills for programming, and some iron to COMMON so it can be the center of the iSociety community.
The iSociety is not, of course, to be confused with High Society, a 1956 movie starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Celeste Holm, John Lund, and Louis Calhern, which was loosely based on the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story. The iSociety is really not to be confused with a pornographic magazine named High Society that was launched in May 1976, according to its Wikipedia entry.
All I am saying is make sure you type in the correct URL or you are going to get an i-full.
Why Start with COMMON?
There will probably be much made of the fact that COMMON is in control of the iSociety site, particularly among those who advocate for a truly free and independent organization, free of any affiliations with any single organization. One could argue, for instance, that COMMON is a little too tightly aligned with IBM--try to imagine COMMON without IBM's support and you will see what I mean. Some will say that if iSociety belonged anywhere, it was with an affiliation of all the user groups scattered around the world, including COMMON. But even these user groups are dependent on IBM for varying degrees for the meetings and events they host.
iSociety has to start somewhere, and with 4,000 end user companies, vendors, and other interested parties comprising some 22,000 individuals, COMMON has the largest pool of active members aside from the largest System i-related publications (which obviously includes those from IT Jungle and our rivals). As long as iSociety is truly inclusive and figures out ways to integrate--spiritually, electronically, and financially--all of these organizations, it doesn't much matter where it starts. Be happy IBM is starting iSociety, and then letting it go.
I think it is important to offer one cautionary comment: If COMMON doesn't let iSociety eventually take care of itself--by which I mean that it provides mechanisms for the community to be free of COMMON over the long haul--then it may suffer a fate similar to that of the iSeries Nation. iSociety has to stand on its own two feet.
Here's why. COMMON is not the OS/400 and i5/OS community. If you do the math, there are maybe 215,000 OS/400 and i5/OS shops in the world, with maybe 600,000 or so people working on the platforms. 4,000 companies and 22,000 members is a tiny fraction of the community. About 2 percent of shops and maybe 4 percent of people. The members of COMMON are perhaps the most vocal, perhaps the richest (they can afford to send people to COMMON, after all), and perhaps the most motivated part of the community--no doubt. But it is important to not confuse a subset with a much, much larger set. It is one thing to do that with a survey, where you can have a representative sampling. With community, you have to bring in the community.
To succeed, iSociety has to do what COMMON has not been able to do in decades and what iSeries Nation could not do in years: engage a much larger portion of the OS/400 and i5/OS community. Exactly what will draw the i5/OS and OS/400 community into iSociety remains to be seen.
But everyone understands the issue of getting everyone in the community involved. Bev Russell, president of COMMON, was elected to the organization's board back in October 2002 and eventually became president. Her day job is being IT director at E.D. Smith & Sons, a privately owned Canadian food manufacturer that is famous for its jellies and, to us, famous as being a user of the OS/400 and now i5/OS platform. While Russell has been a part of COMMON for years, and was a member of the board of the Toronto User Group in Canada for a dozen years before that, she understands that not everyone has the backing that she has gotten from her company when it comes to the platform.
"What about the other thousands and thousands of people who have not had the opportunities I have had?" Russell asked rhetorically when considering the possibilities that are ahead for iSociety. "And we are going to bring the community right to their laptops. This gives us all an opportunity to be heard, to tell each other how we are using the systems."
And, if it works right, iSociety could create a virtuous cycle of positive feedback loops that spread the System i gospel. That means more participation in COMMON, more activity on the message boards and publication Web sites, and more sales for IBM.
What Is iSociety?
The iSociety Web site is, in its initial incarnation, an amalgam of some new and existing external sites that have been integrated with some new capabilities. Here's the initial component lineup:
- The core iSociety site, which includes chat, job boards, and training modules. The site will employ a peer-acclaim rating system for postings, similar to that developed by Slashdot, so the best content, as judged by peers, rises to the top of the pile. This is the portion operated by COMMON. According to Russell, COMMON is donating the content in its chat and forums, which it launched during its redesign last year as eCommunity, as part of the iSociety site.
- IBM is contributing something called the Truth site, which is intended to link System i professionals to their peers in the Windows, Linux, and Unix communities. The Truth site is supposed to be where members of the i5/OS and OS/400 community come to tell their stories. As examples, COMMON suggested that one story might illustrate what it is like to have a weekend without a computer outage, or not having to run around on Patch Tuesday, plugging holes in Windows boxes.
- The System iPortal is a Web content aggregator created by Penton, the owner of System iNetwork, one of our rival publications. This portal will include blogs, podcasts, and wikis and will link to content from other publications and sources, such as the Midrange-L newsgroup. Any money generated by Penton from iPortal does not feed back into iSociety, by the way, so it is unclear how iSociety will fund its grassroots marketing campaigns.
- Other grassroots Web sites, such as the Angus The iT Chap blog started by Trevor Perry, a System i consultant who has been very active and vocal at COMMON and elsewhere for many years. COMMON says that such grassroots sites will be given the tools to create flash videos and other kinds of graphics to produce their own commercials for the System i platform. The intent is for the message to spread virally over the net--and no, that doesn't mean hacking. It is an Internet-savvy way of saying word of mouth.
To flesh out what should be on the iSociety site, IBM and COMMON tapped a team of students at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who were part of the System i Academic Initiative. Back in March, you will recall, IBM designated the University of Nebraska as a System i training hub, as part of the System i Academic Initiative, which seeks to promote the teaching of i5 hardware and i5/OS software technologies among colleges and universities around the world. While some 30,000 students a year get some exposure to the platform, the Academic Initiative wants a much deeper experience for a larger number of students, and the hub at UNL was created to develop the training materials that could then be shared with other schools as they build System i into their curricula.
The four students who worked on the iSociety project from the university did not actually code the site, but rather proposed the features the site should have. They did a presentation to IBM and COMMON, and according to COMMON, most of those recommendations were included in the code that comprises the iSociety community.
Will iSociety Change Anything?
The big question--and the one that only time will answer--is whether iSociety can change anything. Grassroots communities do change things. And even in the field of technology.
I'll give you one example, not related to IBM or the System i. My alma mater, Penn State, was and continues to be a big user of Solaris on X86 platforms. When Sun started to go down the drain in 2002, one of the knee-jerk reactions it had was to pull the plug on Solaris for X86 in an effort to try to prop up sales of more expensive Solaris boxes based on Sparc processors. X86 servers could be bought cheaply from many sources, and in many cases, older X86 iron that would have been retired was put to use running Solaris for X86. Sun should have been happy that customers who could no longer justify purchasing Sparc iron were at least investing in Solaris, which users adore every bit as much as OS/400 and i5/OS shops love those operating systems. But it wasn't.
John Groenveld, an associate research engineer at Penn State's Applied Research Lab--which is one of the largest engineering research centers in the world--sent an open letter to Sun explaining that this was a stupid policy. And he kept going after Sun, and raised a grassroots community that after two years time, resulted in an upheaval of Sun's management. That upheaval caused Sun to question everything it was doing, and that questioning resulted in the open sourcing of Solaris and its adoption of the Opteron platform--two moves that make Sun absolutely competitive with any Wintel or Lintel box.
The pressure that the Solaris for X86 lovers used was budgetary: They basically told Sun that they would move to Linux if it didn't reverse course.
Now, here's the bit that is important in this story. There was no Sun for X86 portal to compel that change. It was people and competitors and market forces that put the pressure on Sun. Change doesn't require such a facility. But, it may be enhanced and amplified by it. Or, at least that is the hope we all have.
In many ways, iSociety will have to undo the decade of neglect the AS/400, iSeries, and i5 has suffered at the hands of an IBM that only thinks fiscal quarter to quarter, and only about the easy sell. IBM's product lines blow the way the market blows them--except for the OS/400 and i5 platform, which has always followed its own course.
"There's an entire generation of students and IT professionals that began their careers after the rise of Windows and aren't really aware that valid alternatives exist," says Perry, whose Angus The iT Chap site has exhibited more smarts and wit in a few short months than IBM has done in the history of its midrange platform. "As we collaborated on what the new System i community should look like, we aimed to include elements that would show this generation that patching vulnerabilities, baby sitting systems, and managing sprawling server farms is not their only career option."
So, before we were asked to be citizens in the iSeries Nation. And many of us signed up. And now we are being asked to become members of the iSociety. As soon as the site is live, I will sign up. What do you plan to do, and what do you think about all of this? Let me know by hitting that Contact button at the top of this story. I am curious about what you are thinking after you look at the iSociety site.
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The iDeal iSeries, Parts 1 to 5, from 2002. Yeah, 2002. And I was right then about how to price and package the iSeries, as I am right now when I talk about the System i.
iMaker, iMaker, make me an i!, Angus The iT Chap blog