: A Community of Common Interest
June 22, 2009 Hesh Wiener
Editor’s Note: This is the first-page essay from the pilot edition of The Four Hundred, which was written by Hesh Wiener, my mentor and the original publisher of the newsletter. The first edition of The Four Hundred was published nine months after the launch of the AS/400 in June 1988, and was a joint production between Technology News of America, Hesh’s company and my employer way back then, and the Reed Elsevier publishing giant. The newsletter actually got its start in England first and was rolled out in the United States and Canada a few months later, and then licensed to other publishers in France and Japan. In all these years, our mission has not changed one tiny bit, as you will see.
Like AS/400 shops, I value continuity and tradition. But things do change. The Four Hundred uses American spelling these days, though, and we don’t use the editorial plural, “we,” anymore, either. I also started using the serial comma at some point, which probably says something about my toilet training if I remember the arguments people have had about which is better, the AP Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style. (What, you think people are only zealots in IT? Think about 8th grade English class for just a second. . . . now imagine many teachers are drinking and arguing. That’s what real-world editors are like.) And just forget about printing on paper and using the mail–something I truly miss. I took great satisfaction many years ago putting each letter in its envelope myself every month, and labeling the envelopes, and putting the postage on it and carrying the sacks off to the post office. It all seemed more personal and substantial that way.
But just as the AS/400 has had to change with the times, so has The Four Hundred. How could it be otherwise?
The newsletter before you has been produced with one goal in mind: the nurturing of a community of common interest. That interest, of course, surrounds the IBM AS/400 computer system. The community is one of end users, the people who have chosen to depend on an AS/400 to house the records of their enterprises, to sift and analyse the data in those records, to present the results of that distillation and, most importantly, to respond, quickly and reliably, to questions asked about the world of facts and figures contained within the system.
To that end, we have tried to distill the most essential elements of news, research findings, and journalistic reporting into a very small package. This approach is not so different from the challenge posed to IBM’s engineers by the company’s leaders, who wanted–and got–a small, essential computer suitable for a huge mass of organisations. The most striking difference between this monthly report and the computer at its focus comes from the human nature of the end user.
In a business, government or other well-organised activity, people can reach explicit goals if they have ready access to well-ordered, clearly defined and carefully circumscribed information. This scheme breaks down when there is no agreement on purpose. When a group of people share a computer, working together to define its purpose, stoking it with appropriate information and programming it to respond to a limited range of enquiries, they can create a functioning community.
Unfortunately for the reader–and editors as well–a written report cannot be as complete. The real power and value of published information is not created by the writers and researchers. . . although we wish it were so. Instead, a publication such as this one depends almost entirely on the readers to make it work. At best, the editors can respond to readers’ enquiries and suggestions, occasionally understanding them and accepting their import, thereby changing the publication for the better.
Even that approach, sadly, has very strict limits. For if the readers could readily ask for the information they might need tomorrow, they would probably be better off getting it themselves. They certainly shouldn’t wait around for it to come in the mail.
How, then, can we justify our existence? What can we do to help the reader gain a better grip on a world unfolding at a dizzying pace? We have found a few small things that ought to help. And they have been obtained, as one might expect, from the community we hope to serve.
Sketching the big picture
AS/400 users are often too close to their own daily activities to see the world in which they function. Perhaps we can expand the reader’s horizons. We have, for example, chipped in with other researchers to fund exhaustive studies of the AS/400 users, the organisational entities in which they work and the economic climate in which they appear to be thriving. The fruits of the resultant research are largely statistical. And while the aggregate information may say little about the immediate problems faced by any single AS/400 user, it does enable readers to locate themselves within a diverse and interesting realm. In addition, the statistical data enables a somewhat removed researcher to spot trends and illustrate them. Sometimes these trends fit common sense about the way the world is changing. But more often than not, the evolution of a dispersed community is too subtle to detect in its early stages. Things are changing, but at first they just don’t feel as if they are. We hope to provide a dynamic, insightful, detailed census of the AS/400 world’s human population. We expect that the astute reader will use it to better reflect on the past, more effectively understand the present and more imaginatively prepare for the future.
In this issue, for example, we present for the first time details of IBM’s marketing results in the U.S. that help explain why the manufacturer has pushed harder to improve small AS/400s than large ones. While users of the biggest machines in the line may worry about outgrowing their systems before IBM can give them more robust environments, IBM takes a different view. The company cannot tolerate a business slowdown. This is not necessarily detrimental to AS/400 users, regardless of the size of their computers. A growing community is healthier for everyone in it. Having tried to explain IBM’s tactics, we must confess to a certain scepticism regarding their impact: Only time will tell whether IBM made the right move. When it does, we expect to be the first source of new market statistics.
Illuminating the details
However valuable statistical information may be, by itself it cannot be completely fulfilling. It must be supplemented by anecdotal evidence about conditions in the practical world. To this end, editors undertake a task that can be done well, but can never be done completely: provide the reader with reporting. Each person who depends in part on an AS/400 for a livelihood has a story that is intrinsically valuable to others in this cohort. The individual user does not have to be well known, the user’s enterprise does not have to alter economies or reshape technology. What makes a story important is not how exotic it is–although that may make it more entertaining to read–but rather how much simple truth it has in it. This can be more difficult to obtain than it seems.
We hope to provide detailed accounts of events within the organisations that use AS/400s. Some of these sites are quite typical, and well they should be. So, too, are the informational needs of most readers. But every once in a while we will try, on your behalf, to get inside an enterprise that is unique. For the most part, computing within such an enterprise will be as familiar as that at other, less well-known places. That is how it should be. If nothing else, such a story will give you food for the following thought: Is it better to be part of a more visible or less visible organisation? We suspect that the answer is, on balance, yes. Which is why we hope to bring you not just the stories of particular groups, but of the organisational process itself. In this issue, for instance, we reveal that the Trump Organisation, despite its name, is not yet fully organised from a computing standpoint. We had hoped to determine if Trump’s extraordinary success was the fruit of purely human genius or whether it was the result of a brilliant use of technology. The answer our reporter obtained–and we have no reason to doubt its veracity–is that Trump owes thanks to both.
Thinking it over
In addition to the bare facts we have uncovered, we plan to present some worthwhile insights. To that end, we have contacted a number of keen and dedicated observers of computing in general and the AS/400 in particular. Their ideas will appear in these pages along with the material derived from end users. Some of their ideas will be provocative, others soothing, all of them tied to our singular purpose: nourishment.