The Definite Article, No Doubt About It
March 26, 2012 Timothy Prickett Morgan
People are hierarchical beings, and they definitely have patterns in their speech that are tell-tale signs of deference and respect. So here’s a funny question for the day: How many products can you think of where the name of the object has the definite article “the” in front of it? He isn’t just the Pope because there’s only one, and someday some general won’t grumble, “Get me the President,” just because she is the one who was elected and lives in the White House.
People called the first practical car the Model T, and in my family at least, its great-great grandson was always the Mustang.
Since he was a very young boy, my son Henry has called the main shopping street in Inwood, the neighborhood where we live in Manhattan, the 207, not 207th Street. And now we call it that, too.
When I was in college, we did programming work on the VAX or the mainframe. It is funny how AlphaServer machines that followed the VAX lost their definite article, perhaps in direct proportion to the amount of respect Digital Equipment Corporation had lost in the 1980s and 1990s among data processing departments as they became information technology departments.
It was the System/360 when it wasn’t called the mainframe, and by the way, it still cracks me up when I am watching any science fiction series or movie and someone inevitably says “the mainframe has been compromised” or some such exclamation made to create drama. So powerful is the name “the mainframe” that it is almost one word “themainframe” and it means the central processing complex that is vital; it doesn’t have anything to do with a system’s architecture or the nature of its applications, legacy or otherwise.
The definite article kept on through the System/370, the 3080, the 3090, and even the System/390 generations, but no one ever said the zSeries or the System z. If they did, it was just an adjectival modifier crowbarred into “themainframe.”
Of course, we in the midrange had the System/38, followed by the the System/36, and then the AS/400–still often simply “thefourhundred”, as is the name of this newsletter for the past 23 years and it will stay that way for the foreseeable future. And not just because the name is a registered trademark that I own or that it is too much of a hassle to change names. (It is. The shift from midrangeserver.com to itjungle.com reflected my aspirations for my company nearly a decade ago, but that was a truly annoying experience.)
I was completely baffled and just a bit angry with the “Mach II” rebranding campaign that was instituted when Sam Palmisano took over IBM in late 1999, where IBM changed the system product names to zSeries, iSeries, pSeries, and xSeries, which was bad enough. And stopped talking about “systems” and kept focusing on “servers,” exactly in tune with the market and now exactly backward with how vendors and customers alike are thinking about “systems” again today. IBM’s marketeers fought like hell to try to get us all to drop the definite article. Why the hell would you do that? It is a badge of honor, and one earned.
And that is why calling them “Power Systems” was not exactly bright. What IBM should have done was call the family “Power System/500” or some such, perhaps relating the numerical part of the name to the Power processor generation, and then we would have been referring to them as the PS/500, the PS/600, the PS/700 for the past five years. I understand that the Personal Systems/2 brand was not exactly a hit for IBM, but that was not the brand’s fault. IBM sold PCs under that brand that were too expensive and too closed, and Compaq came in and cleaned up.
We try to keep the “the” alive here at The Four Hundred by calling it “the IBM i platform,” but it just isn’t the same as “thefourhundred” or the AS/400 or even the iSeries.
Listen carefully to how people talk. It isn’t an Apple iPad. It is the iPad. And it is not even the iPad 3, when referring to the new one announced last week. The basic underlying assumption implied in Apple’s language is that there is only one iPad, and of course it is made only by Apple and you don’t even have to say that, and moreover, the one you have is always the current one, which has been engineered so you will move up to it as quickly as economically possible. And maybe even quicker because you just want it. Apple never officially called the second iPad, which I own, the iPad 2. And the latest one is not called the iPad 3, either.
Branding and naming are some of the things that Trevor Perry, IBM i advocate extraordinaire, is trying to get some intelligence on with his new site, www.ibmi2.com, as part of his Unity 20i2 campaign. So while I am thinking about it, you should click on that link and take Perry’s survey. Since I am a third-party observer of the IBM i platform (I can’t afford to be a user, any more than IBM can use IBM i machines to host a web site), I can’t take the survey and put in my two cents. Which is why I did it here.
The question is not what we call the platform, but rather why IBM doesn’t understand the power or weakness of its own naming conventions.
It is now 31 years since the IBM PC launched, and IBM hasn’t been in the PC business for years, but it took two decades before people stopped saying the IBM PC even when they meant a clone machine from Dell, Gateway, Compaq, Packard Bell, or Hewlett-Packard. And even now, people have a hard time not being reverent and calling it the PC, but the emphasis is almost gone–thanks largely to the iPad and the iPhone.
Funny bit of power in that three letter word, ain’t it?