The Long Play
June 21, 2021 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Surprising things persist, and for good reasons. Around this time every year, when summer is officially beginning, I take a pause and think thankful thoughts about the AS/400 and its progeny, which trace back to the June 21, 1988, launch. I didn’t enter the market until a year later, as the cub reporter and one of the founding editors of The Four Hundred, my first real job out of college and one I still gladly hold.
We have all been through a lot of change in 33 years, to be sure. The IT market is so different today from the data processing market the AS/400 entered, taking the best architectural ideas of the System/38, which was a decade old at the AS/400 launch and which was the first commercial relational database system in the world (ahead of Oracle but no one gives IBM credit here), and the System/36, which was a volume product with over 250,000 customers at the time, and wove them together into a coherent, modern platform that offered mainframe-class capability on a smaller scale and for a lot less money than mainframes cost and a huge portfolio of applications that were ready to roll on Day One.
In our early years, we all feel immortal and living a long life is not even a concern. But at some point, as the years advance and we lose people or the market loses system suppliers, as the world around us changes, longevity goes from being unthought of to being taken for granted to being hesitantly expected to being celebrated. We are not talking about marking off the days on a calendar here – that is the saddest thing anyone could do – but more like raising a toast to the things that persist because of the values they embody and the value that people still derive from them. The AS/400 platform, which has been renamed several times in its more than three decades and which is now called the IBM i platform, is still valuable, and it has outlived many peers because it can keep alive old investments and transform them into each phase change in the IT market. We have never seen anything like it – perhaps Microsoft’s Word and Excel, perhaps Google’s eponymous search engine are akin to the AS/400 platform – and we suspect we will never see it again.
Well, except maybe the vinyl revival, which is the persistence and now resurgence of 33 RPM “long play” or LP vinyl records, which occurred to me because of the synchronicity of the number “33.” I grew up in the vinyl record era is a household that had musicians – we had both kinds of music, country and western – who made car payments or parts of mortgage payments by playing live music in bars, clubs, and weddings as well a love of recorded music. By the time I was a young teenager, the market was shifting to 8-track tape and then cassette tape – truly inferior technology for the long haul – and by my late teens the market shifted to CDs. Since then, we have seen the rise of streaming music and the death of music stores. I don’t know about you, but I treated myself to a new record – I still call them records to the great amusement of my children – after each paycheck for many, many years. Somewhere in the 1990s, when I started to have kids, that stopped. And oddly enough, my oldest daughter has taken a shining to records in recent years. There is something to be said for liner notes and a substantial, physical manifestation of music. And many people are realizing this, and hence the vinyl revival, which started in 2007. While vinyl records only represent about 6 percent of music shipments, record sales are growing at an accelerating rate and the number of records being etched are now at levels we have not seen since the 1980s.
Amazing, when you think about it. Record level access is being preserved in two different ways.
With at, I wish the AS/400 a happy 33rd birthday and point out we could have spent a lot of time talking about the mystery of the “33” on the Rolling Rock beer bottle. But it just didn’t resonate.