Users Express Frustration with IBM, Marketing At COMMON
by Alex Woodie
IBM's iSeries executives took it on the chin from disgruntled iSeries users at the COMMON conference in Toronto, Ontario, last week. From "cheap, chintzy" i5 components and poor marketing to a dwindling college presence and ongoing reseller channel woes, one did not get a sense of prosperity and optimism in the iSeries Nation during the "Sound Off" session.
Before Al Barsa, president of Barsa Consulting Group, took his customary place at the front of the Sound Off line at COMMON last week, Mike Borman, the new iSeries general manager, tried to butter him up a little. "I know we have some great business partners, like Al Barsa, a premier business partner in the Northeast," Borman said. "We don't have thousands of business partners that have the right skills that Al has."
It didn't work.
"Bringing out products before they're ready is a waste of time, money, and effort," Barsa would later say of the Hardware Management Console, or the "horrible management console," as he termed it. "I'll repeat what I've said for the last four Sound Offs: what were you thinking, or were you thinking?" (For more on the i5-related problems brought up at the show, as well as IBM's response, see "Problems with Early i5 Plague Customers, Partners".)
Barsa's opening volley was just the start of a litany of problems and frustrations that iSeries users laid on IBM executives during the Sound Off session. In addition to trouble with i5 installations, the next most common complaint was IBM's iSeries marketing, or lack thereof.
In fact, two out of the three most highly rated speakers from COMMON's spring show in San Antonio stood up and criticized IBM executives for its iSeries marketing. This included Trevor Perry, a consultant with CRM software vendor Clear Technologies, and Randall Munson, a former IBM employee and a marketing expert, who runs his own company, Creatively Speaking. (And if Robert Tipton, who won the third gold medal in COMMON's Speaker Excellence Awards for the spring COMMON, had attended last week's show, he probably would have had some less-than-flattering things to say about IBM's positioning of the iSeries, if history is any guide.)
" 'iSeries mySeries' is absolutely fantastic," Perry said, referring to the new branding campaign IBM introduced seven months ago. "But it's very, very insular. I want to hear things like 'iSeries mySeries, yourSeries ourSeries.' We're out there in the world, and people don't know about this box."
It does no good to have the best technology in the world if people don't know about it, Perry said. "This thing runs Linux now. Shouldn't everybody in the Linux community know about this? They don't. We don't hear about it out there," he said. "Don't preach to us. We're converted; iSeries mySeries is fantastic. . .but it's got to be bigger than what we've got. Give us some tools, let us go out and preach the word."
In her response to Perry, the outgoing vice president of iSeries marketing, Cecelia Marrese, acknowledged that the iSeries mySeries campaign has, so far, failed in its goal to boost recognition of the box and its fanatically loyal user base. But she took exception that IBM hasn't provided the user community with tools. "We've put out analyst reports, we've put out all kinds of TCO [total cost of ownership] studies to armor different constituencies to get the message across," Marrese said. "It sounds like that part of the campaign just hasn't gotten across."
Marrese, who is leaving the iSeries group on November 1 to take another job within IBM that focuses on industry-specific software sales in North America, put some of the blame on the IT press and IT analysts groups. "The challenge we have is technologies that are pervasive, like Intel, Linux, and Windows; that's what the analysts focus on," she said. "That's what the press focuses on, are those pervasive technologies. And then, when you talk about iSeries, they get a little lost because it doesn't fit cleanly into any of the compute categories that they're familiar with. We have a 'push' technology. We really have to figure out a way to describe our differentiation and our value proposition in such a way that we can differentiate ourselves in a world where Windows and Unix and Linux really dominate from a press and from an analyst perspective."
Munson, an independent iSeries marketing expert, disagreed that the iSeries has to be a "push" sell, which means you have to go out and actively sell your product, as opposed to a "pull" sell, where customers come to you. "The notion that we will never be pull selling should be reconsidered, when you look at Boeing, who is doing pull marketing, and the pharmacies, who are doing pull marketing on a product that you can't even buy as a consumer," he said. "Maybe there's something in there for us to consider."
Munson also said that IBM is not doing enough to explain what an iSeries is and to combat false perceptions that people may have about it. "There was a great deal of pride with the brand recognition for the iSeries," he said. "But I think you should consider what people think of that brand. Osama bin Laden has great name recognition also. It's not always positive just because people know who you are. You have to know who you are and also why you're good. The second part is missing."
Despite the problems that she had with her i5 upgrade this summer, Mary Kern, director of information services at the University of Toledo Foundation, remains a steadfast iSeries supporter but wonders why IBM isn't more vocal about its support for the box. "The associated vice president for the University of Toledo has probably got me on his spam list, because every time I get this really cool iSeries thing, I e-mail it to him," she said. "We have 80 Wintel servers in the IT area, along with a mainframe and some Unix boxes, and I keep telling them to consolidate them and get all of them onto an iSeries or a couple of iSeries. I preach the preach, and I walk the walk, and I do all the things that I'm supposed to do, but I guarantee you that I'm on his spam list now, because he doesn't want to hear it from me, because he's not hearing it from you."
Borman acknowledged that IBM can and should do more to push the iSeries. "Internally we have a lot of work to do, also, to get the rest of IBM to lead with this box. I have the best hope that Sam [Palmisano], our CEO, and Bill Zeitler will get this fixed inside the company," he said to an IT director from Ohio.
BEYOND MARKETING: THE VAE
Not all Sound Off participants had bad things to say about IBM or its products. The most typical positive remarks had to do with IBM's technical support. But, as the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and most of the remarks had to do with shortcomings, whether real or perceived.
One IT director with a manufacturer touched upon the ongoing trouble IBM is having with the value added enhancement, or VAE, certification and the right that some resellers have to sell upgrades, and the prohibition on selling upgrades imposed by IBM on other resellers. The IT director asked IBM why he wasn't able to order an RS/6000 upgrade through his regular business partner, which has supplied him with AS/400 and iSeries servers and solutions through the years. "Apparently there's some dysfunction there between the two," he said. "We would like to have one business partner that we deal with, and not to have to keep going back to the software guy. The software solution is fine. They're just not very good with the hardware pieces."
Keith Rutledge, IBM's North American sales director for the iSeries, said he has heard that question quite a bit recently. "You may have heard the term 'VAE.' Some customers have heard that from their business partner, usually not in an enjoyable conversation," Rutledge said. "I could see where a partner might be a very good iSeries partner [but] may not be skilled on pSeries. The reason for this authorization structure is to ensure that the partner has the skills and the infrastructure to be successful and deliver high quality service."
WEBSPHERE AND ISERIES INTEGRATION
Another user stood up and asked IBM (quite seriously) why the company had not acted upon the request he made at the spring COMMON show to make WebSphere simple and easy to use. He hit, perhaps unintentionally, a Big Blue nerve. Here's IBM's response.
"We inside the WebSphere team over the last several years have ported all the various products that we have--the application server, the portal, the business integration software, the HATS product--over to the iSeries," said Tom Inman, the software group vice president in charge of WebSphere. "And, as I've described to my team, it's been a bit of a 'port and pray,' as opposed to really get down hardcore with the iSeries team and really integrate the products with each other in the operating environment. One of the reasons I'm here is to show our division the critical nature of COMMON and really to fix WebSphere on the iSeries platform," Inman continued. "The first step to recovery, in my opinion, is to recognize you have a problem. We have a problem. It's too complex, number one, and, secondly, we're not integrated with i[Series]. . . . The proof will be in the pudding of the investments that we are now making on our engineering team working with the iSeries engineering team to get the experience a lot more integrated."
Several users cautioned IBM about the dwindling number of universities and colleges that are teaching OS/400 and iSeries skills. Al Barsa spoke about the experiences he's had in evaluating the IT programs of various colleges his son is considering applying to. ("Not the MITs. He's not that smart," Barsa said. "The RPIs, the Cornells.") "Nobody at any of these schools teaches EBCDIC computing anymore. Nobody," he said. "If you're going to try to reinvigorate the platform with education, you have to get people to look at EBCDIC computing. And if they're not going to do it, you're going to die."
IBM's Rutledge doubted whether there was any point in trying to get EBCDIC, rather than ASCII, back into the curriculum, "but we certainly can revitalize the education effort with machines," he said. "We have a Partners in Education program in place. We need your help as a business partner, and your help especially as customers, to help universities and community colleges realize there is a market. If they realize there is a market for graduates with skills in OS/400 and Linux on iSeries, they'll teach it."