Reader Feedback On Affordable Energy: Investment In The IBM i ISV Community
March 9, 2015 Thanks for continuing to find new topics to stir conversations around the IBM i marketplace. I just read your story about IBM's ISV support programs and had a few thoughts to share.
Thanks for continuing to find new topics to stir conversations around the IBM i marketplace. I just read your story about IBM’s ISV support programs and had a few thoughts to share.
One of the challenges for ISVs who want to work in this market is that sometimes the strategies and development methods recommended by IBM are out of touch with the ISV’s market niche. You have to be careful not to follow IBM down a path that can lead you to create an application that IBM developers will praise, but very few customers will buy.
Another challenge for ISVs is that IBM, like any software company, wants to promote its latest technology. It naturally wants ISVs to adopt that technology so customers can benefit from using it, but most ISVs survive on software maintenance fees that are generated from customers who are roughly two to five years behind IBM’s current marketing and technology. An ISV has to balance providing solutions these customers can use now with trying to sort out which new technologies are most likely to still be supported, valuable, and competitive several years from now when their customers will be ready for them.
The last point I’d make has to do with IBM marketing assistance for ISVs. It’s very difficult for IBM to effectively provide hands-on marketing support to small and niche-oriented ISVs in the IBM i market. This is partly because IBM often has both a cooperative and competitive relationship with these ISVs, but it’s also because of the incredible differentiation of products and vendor go-to-market strategies. For quite a few years now I think IBM’s taken the right approach by simply letting ISVs make independent decisions about how best to reach their market and then apply to IBM’s co-op marketing folks for partial reimbursement. IBM can help fund the marketing tactics of hundreds of ISVs each year for less than the cost of a single, generic Super Bowl or Wall Street Journal ad.
–Bill Langston, director of marketing, New Generation Software
Being a small ISV that’s been around for 20 years now, I can tell you IBM is only part of the problem.
IBM has their business partner and PartnerWorld programs. It sounds great, and I’m sure has helped customer find solutions. But sometimes it seems more like just a sandbox IBM has used to make us feel like they are allowing us to promote our solutions on their website. I can’t recall one customer telling me they found us on IBM’s website. Normally, it’s word of mouth (thanks to awesome customers!) or a web search where the product is mentioned as a solution to a specific problem by myself.
Being part of IBM’s PartnerWorld program and an IBM BP, I used to have an IBM rep contact me at least once a month to see if they could provide any assistance. I thought that was nice, but the one time I did ask for some technical help on a problem I was having, it took almost two weeks to get a reply that “they couldn’t help with that particular issue.” Then one day I received an email from the rep saying he was moving on and I never heard from them again.
ISV solutions are created to fill holes and answer the needs that aren’t part of the system itself. If a customer calls IBM and they can’t solve the issue or offer a solution, it strengthens the thoughts of “The IBM i really can’t keep up with the world!”
ISVs and IBM need to be much more “symbiotic” or “quid pro quo” in their relationships.
As an example, IBM added XML parsing to the OS. There already were ISVs providing a solution for XML parsing. This didn’t help the ISV, in fact it hurt them. Now JSON is overtaking XML. Will they create a JSON parser as well and integrate it into the OS? What about JSON’s replacement?
A few years ago IBM decided to add PDF conversions to the OS. Why? There were already at least 5 ISVs providing solutions that did just that for over 15 years. What happens when PDF loses out to the next big digital document format? And the next? And the next?
My point is that solutions like parsing XML or JSON, or converting a report to PDF or Word is the perfect place for an ISV to step in and fill in the gaps.
A lot of the solutions I provide were out of necessity. Most of them grew to large scale applications because of others that needed the same problem solved, and also had ideas on how to make the software better. Our MAILTOOL software is a perfect example. I needed a way to send emails from my IBM i (back then we called it an AS/400). The issue was we used Gmail for Business for our email which required SSL or TLS, and Authentication (Basic or OAuth 2.0). Nothing was available so we created our own solution that bypasses the IBM SMTP server and MSF and gives us complete control over how emails are sent. Customers also find this feature very useful as well as they move their mail processing to the cloud.
The point of this example is that IBM shouldn’t have to create the software for them to be able to say, “We can perform this task on our amazing hardware!”
Instead, I’d like to hear them say, “Our great ISV community I’m sure has a solution for almost any issue you have! That’s what makes our platform so strong!”
The other issue is the midrange community itself. For years it seems like it’s been spreading and thinning out. Some doors were shutting (most notably Midrange Computing and News400 magazines) and as others try to find a niche in the market, they split off from already established groups such as the Midrange.com mailing lists. There is no hub–only hundreds of spokes, each looking out for themselves.
Yes, I admit that I am one of those spokes. I am looking out for myself and my family by making a living providing solutions on the IBM i platform. I made that choice years ago and am happy I did. But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that most ISVs like myself are still heavily involved in the community, offering help, advice, and our solutions when they fit in.
I like to believe that if we as a community got back together as a strong, organized, and vocal group touting the strengths of the platform that it would be good for everyone. It may also give IBM (and possibly other larger organizations) the confidence in their main user base to start assisting not only those with open source projects, but also ISVs that provide close source solutions and make the platform “better.”
I like the idea of open source as well, but not as a “one size fits all” solution.
I went through the whole “open source” paradigm twice now over the past 20 years. Each time I finally decided “closed source” was the best way for me personally to provide not only the best solution and support possible, but also put food on the table for my family. I even wrote a blog about it here.
My main frustration with open source is that the idea of it is measured by the few large success cases, and not the more inevitable reality that instead of a community supporting the project, it will be yours for life, and only yours. And very few will click on the “support” button to send you a few bucks through PayPal.
There are some great open source products out there for the IBM i (CGIDEV2 and Scott Klement’s offerings come to mind). We also offer a couple free products as well (but still closed source) such as Scan Message File (SCNMSGF) and List File Field Description (LSTFFD).
There are also some great low cost and innovative solutions out there. Just because they’re not free or open source doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try them, or that IBM or the midrange community shouldn’t offer them up as solutions.
–Brad Stone, president, BVSTools