Tachy i Syndrome: Aye Yi Yi Don’t Care What You Call It, Just Capitalize the Letter “I”
April 3, 2006 Timothy Prickett Morgan
If the members of the COMMON user group have been consistent about any two complaints for the past six years, it is that IBM doesn’t do enough to differentiate the AS/400-iSeries-System i platform from other IBM servers–now called systems–as well as from other server platforms from competitors, and that it keeps changing the name of the product every couple of years.
A year ago, Peter Bingaman, then vice president of marketing for the iSeries, agreed with vocal attendees of the town hall and Sound Off meeting at COMMON that IBM had changed the name of the servers too many times and that from here on out, the product line would be the iSeries and that was that. Well, last summer, the top marketeers in IBM’s Systems and Technology Group decided otherwise, and they switched from the “eServer nSeries” moniker, where n was either i for the OS/400 platform, p for the AIX platform, z for the mainframe platform, and x for the X86 platform to a new marketing brand, “System n,” with the same old i, p, z, and x. Rather than make a big stink about the rebranding, as IBM did in 2000 when current System i general manager Mark Shearer was in charge of marketing and branding of all eServer platforms, this time IBM has quietly rolled out the new names as each server line gets its hardware refresh. The mainframes became the System z in July 2006, the pSeries became the System p last fall, and the iSeries became the System i in January. Not everyone was happy about these name changes, including Shearer, who knew, as general manager if the iSeries line, that he would be facing a end user and reseller community that was sick of name changes. But the naming decision was now up to Anil Menon, vice president of marketing at Systems and Technology Group, and Bill Zeitler, senior vice president and group executive in charge of STG. And, despite Shearer’s objections (and most likely Bingaman’s as well), we are now one big happy Systems family, and we happen to live and work (at least some of the time) in the System i part of the household.
When asked–if you can call being yelled at a question–about the name changing at the town hall meeting, Shearer looked at Menon and quipped, “Amen. Anil?” To which Menon shot back, “When Mark asked me to come, he said there would not be a single naming question.” Everyone laughed and the situation seemed to diffuse a little. Menon said that he and Zeitler decided on the “Systems” name for good reasons, which are outlined in the IBM Systems Agenda and which, to put it briefly, means that IBM is focused once again on providing complete integrated stacks of server hardware, operating systems, middleware, compilers, and management tools, which together comprise a system. And it is hard to argue with that logic, really. Menon was absolutely unapologetic about changing the names of the brands again, and said further that it was his decision to make, and not the individual decision of the general managers of each server line. “I made that decision, and Mark was the only GM who was totally opposed.”
In Menon’s position, I would have said exactly the same thing–hopefully a little less bluntly, but, for those of you who know me, perhaps not. And as a small company and product line that is only five years old that used to be called Midrange Server which now has a company name of Guild Companies and an IT-related publication set called IT Jungle, I certainly feel IBM’s pain. And, just like Menon, when I thought it was time to lose the legacy name of “midrange” and “server” because it was hurting us much as it was helping us since we publish newsletters that are about more than midrange servers, and moved to the much cooler and memorable IT Jungle moniker, I talked to my employees about it and said this was my thinking and if anyone could come up with a better name, I was all ears. We all agreed that it was a better name than Midrange Server, but even if we didn’t all agree, as president of this company, it would have been my call. Having said that, This newsletter was called The Four Hundred when it was launched in 1989, and except for my hiatus as the editor of the former Monday Morning AS/400 Update (which everyone called Monday Morning Update, dropping the AS/400 for some reason in speech) from May 1998 to July 2001, I have still been the editor of a newsletter that, no matter what IBM’s naming conventions are, is called The Four Hundred. Why? Because that is what people call the box, whether IBM likes it or not, even if IBM has been changing midrange product names every five years or so for the past three and a half decades.
“IBM does too much small ‘m’ marketing–focusing on advertising and naming,” said Menon. “The Systems story is a very good story, and I agree that we do not need to keep changing names to get credibility.” Why IBM didn’t just do “systems” in 2000 is a better question, but selling “servers” was all the rage then and IBM was focused on the iron. “The names are not going to be driven by the GMs, but by Bill Zeitler and me and we are now going to be consistent,” said Menon. Shearer chimed in his support after that. “We are not only going to work to clarify the Systems story, but we are going to differentiate our product within that story.”
In one of the funnier moments of the Sound Off meeting, Robert LeBlanc, general manager of application integration middleware for IBM’s Software Group, was suggesting that the term “information technology” was no longer sufficient to describe what this market is and what we all do within it. “Maybe ‘IT’ is the wrong name, and maybe we need to change the name.” After the crowd burst into an uproar of laughter, LeBlanc said, “I can’t believe I just said that.”
I don’t care what IBM calls the box, because I don’t think the branding is all that important. You only worry about names when the name is all you’ve got going for you. What matters is that this particular machine has particular software and runs particular applications and does so at a particular price. Packaging, pricing, and promotion of those two are all that really matter. If you get the first two right, then the latter falls into place.
What I do care about is the lower case letters in the IBM System names. Word processors hate that, and it is really annoying to type “System i” and have my word processor change it to “System I” and then have to backspace and make the “i” lower case again. (That very sentence required me to do it twice.) What was wrong with System I, System P, System Z, and System X? Do any of you people in IBM marketing ever have to type anything? You have just annoyed a lot of people in the reseller and partner community, not to mention the trade and general press, the latter of which rarely got IBM’s naming conventions right and are not about to start now. IBM itself is not consistent, and hasn’t been for six years now. Menon is right, IBM needs to be consistent.
With the way the Systems Agenda is looking, with everyone trying to emulate the integration inherent in our beloved AS/400, I don’t know why IBM didn’t just call them all System/400s and be done with it. System/400 is the logical successor to the System/390 mainframe, right? About the only way IBM will ever stop this discussion about naming and differentiation is to work with Microsoft to re-port Windows to the Power architecture, get mainframe operating systems running in emulation mode on Power chips using something like QuickTransit from Transitive, and consolidating everything down to what is now the System i and System p chassis, which supports OS/400, AIX, and Linux. (Yes, I still call it OS/400 because there’s no way the i5/OS name is gonna stick.) Then, we can just call them all IBM Systems with no differentiation except at the software level. If IBM priced the OS/400 stack on such an IBM System as aggressively as it does a Windows or Linux stack, I just wouldn’t care what IBM called it. What matters is that customers call and order them. IBM doesn’t have a naming problem, it has a pricing and packaging problem, which I have said for more than a decade and I will continue to say that until Big Blue changes.
I got time. I am a very, very patient man. Sooner or later, all general managers and all vice presidents of marketing move on. I’ll still be here, and so will you. And we will still probably call it the AS/400, even if in print we have to speak whatever language IBM is speaking.