The OS/400 Cooperative
March 27, 2006 Timothy Prickett Morgan
It may not seem like it sometimes, but the end user companies, the IT professionals that work in them, the resellers and software partners, and the IBMers that comprise the OS/400 community have it pretty good, and they enjoy a certain amount of rapport and treat each other with a fair amount of respect. As an organization that serves the OS/400 community, but also participates in the Unix, Linux, Windows, and mainframe communities, IT Jungle probably has a more three-dimensional perspective than someone operating largely within the OS/400 community has.
In my experience as an editor and an analyst, I can safely say that the Unix, Windows, and Linux markets are much more vicious that then OS/400 market in many ways, mainly because there are intense competitive pressures among platform providers. The Unix players are, in particular, at each other’s throats like pit bulls, and they try to drag the press and analyst communities into their fights. They have very aggressive outside press relations agencies, and they are in our faces all week long, trying to get our attention, trying to show how they are pounding the tar out of the competition in one way or another. This is not, of course, an accurate representation of what is going on in the actual Unix server market, but that is the impression they try to create. But the competitive pressures are a good thing in as much as they keep Unix vendors on their toes, and making them respectful of the innovations their competitors bring to market and eager to bring their own innovations to market. Moreover, Unix customers these days run some of the most complex and large workloads in the world, and their demands are the tails that wag the Unix dogs.
The OS/400 community might be a gentler market, but it is also in many ways, less proactive and reactive. And sometimes, I think this is not a very good tradeoff.
As I prepare to fly out to Minneapolis to attend yet another COMMON iSeries user group meeting, I find myself pondering how iSeries shops could bring their collective weight to bear on IBM to compel it to behave in ways that the user community desires. Because the iSeries does not have direct competition, IBM doesn’t price and package the iSeries in a way that many of us believe it ought to so it can compete against Windows, Linux, and Unix platforms. While IBM has a large customer advisory council, COMMON, and regional user groups all feeding in requirements and offering advice to Big Blue on how to improve the iSeries, that is not the same thing as having the power to actually compel IBM to change its behavior.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the AS/400 Division, the iSeries Division, and the System i Division have treated the OS/400 community very well over the past two decades. There is a reason that the OS/400 platform is consistently given the highest satisfaction ratings in the server market. Like many people in the OS/400 community, if I have an argument at all, it is almost never with IBM’s Rochester labs, where the OS/400 platform is created and manufactured, but rather with IBM’s Somers offices, where the marketing and sales plans are hatched and where the pricing and packaging decisions are made. Getting Rochester to listen is easy, since the techies aim to please. Getting Somers to listen is hard, since the marketeers aim to make as much money in the shortest term with the least possible amount effort. They do this because that’s what marketeers at public companies do.
Unless, of course, their customers gang up on them and teach them a lesson or two about market economics and how the customer is the one holding the money until they let go of it.
I was not around when COMMON was founded, but my perception of it from what I have read and heard is that it started out as a real user group, one where users banded together and discussed issues relating to the various IBM midrange platforms IBM has delivered for decades. Over time, as has happened with all platform-related user groups, COMMON has changed from being an organization that exists in contention with IBM, advocating for customers, into an organization that is dependent on IBM and relies on its own user base and IBMers to provide education and training as well as a forum–the Sound off and now Town Hall meeting–in which end users get to vent directly at IBM’s top midrange brass.
Because most of you don’t participate in other markets, I have to remind you of this. And it is important, since my aim here is not to slam COMMON. I have never seen or heard of executives from any other platform putting themselves on the hot seat like IBM’s executives do at COMMON–and especially not in a public forum with trade press there. This is just not done anywhere else in the IT world, and the very fact that IBM braves the community criticism for a few hours every six months just shows you how much respect IBM has for the OS/400 community and the COMMON user group. It is as rowdy and unpredictable as Question Time in the British Parliament, and I not only think that all IBM divisions and business units should have to walk a similar gauntlet, but I think all IT vendors should have to.
But, being able to grill your IT vendor about products, pricing, and practices is one thing. Being about to make them do what is best for you and the long-term health of the product line you base your business on is quite another thing.
Of course, each and every company that buys or doesn’t buy iSeries technology is already doing this. But what I am talking about is tightening up the feedback loops into IBM and out of IBM into the user community, and speeding up the whole process of change to get things to happen a lot quicker. I am talking about doing more than making a list of requirements and waiting for IBM to reply.
I am not sure what to call such an organization, or how to even organize it, but I think of it conceptually as cooperative of customers. So maybe the OS/400 Cooperative is a good name.
I live in New York City in a cooperative apartment building, and just this year was elected to the vice president position in that co-op. A co-op, if you are unacquainted with the concept, is a corporation that owns an apartment building. When you buy a condo, you actually buy the structure and you can sell it and pretty much do as you want inside your four walls. In a co-op apartment, you don’t buy the apartment, but rather shares in a corporation that owns the building, with your shares being tied to a specific location in that building. And you manage the building collectively through a board of directors. The co-op board gathers maintenance money from shareholders to pay the building mortgage, taxes, utilities, and employee salary and benefits. Shareholders in the co-op vote to put members on the board to run the organization. To make substantial changes to the building requires a vote from the shareholders. It is a very democratic process with some representative republican features, much like American democracy when it is working properly. And, there are semi-annual shareholder meetings where we get together to talk about the quality of our lives and how we spend money. It can also be a rowdy time. But, all in all, it is a very decent way to live.
There are other kinds of cooperatives, such as buyer co-operatives where you buy items in bulk and then everyone benefits from volume pricing and–here’s the important part–the significant influence they wield as a collective organization. New York has a number of natural food cooperatives that leverage the same idea, and an organic farm in Upstate New York that services my neighborhood also has a cooperative that lets you buy shares in next year’s produce for a few hundred bucks, and then they deliver the fruits and vegetables to the local park every week. It is kinda fun because all of my neighbors and their kids converge on the park on Wednesday afternoon. I had a little too much random stuff the last time I participated–something I jokingly called Chinese Fire Lettuce, because it was hot and spicy and I had no idea what it was or how to cook with it–but conceptually, the farm cooperative is a great idea. And if I was paying attention, which I wasn’t because I was busy founding a business and taking care of babies, I would have provided feedback to the farm and said that this stuff was no good and that I wanted more strawberries–or asked what on earth it was and how I was supposed to eat it. Thankfully, Inwood, my neighborhood in northern Manhattan, now has its own farmer’s market on Saturday, and the same farm supplies the produce to the co-op as to the market. So I tend to spend my money there now, where I can fraternize with the farmers themselves and provide them with all kinds of feedback. And, I even made a deal to trade homebrew beer for some produce.
For a lot of you, an OS/400 Cooperative probably sounds like some kind of Commie pinko idea that has no place in a marketplace economy that operates strictly on the principles of supply, demand, features, and pricing. But a cooperative is really a democratic idea that gets us away from just consuming a system and complaining about its pricing and features to using our buying power to make the vendor make the product the way we want it.