Angus: Take a look at yourself

On a LinkedIn group called by an old name, starting at the end of last year, someone asked in a discussion if the younger generation were no longer keen to work on an AS/400. I laughed and laughed. And laughed some more.

On a recent cruise, we were talking to a young couple about life, the universe and everything. At one point, they talked about computing, and I mentioned punch cards. Now, for most of us, we hark back to punch cards as a measure of how long we have been in computing. Some of us mention using wires to ‘write’ programs. In any case, we are proud of how much we know about computing and its history. This young couple, who are not computer professionals, but computer users only, had glazed eyes while I prattled on about punch cards, and so on and so on.. Young people have NO idea about our glorious computing past.

For many of us with years of experience, an AS/400 is a symbol of something. It represents the most amazing computing platform we have worked on. And, for many years, we would see people start with the system, only to have a similar, almost religious, experience. Even if it wasn’t our first platform, we treat it with the memory and reverence of a first major event in our lives.

Normally, the memories of our ‘firsts’ fade with time. We remember our first kiss, our first beer, our first you-name-it, with fondness and warm feelings. (Usually!). But with the AS/400, we got to have that same first kiss over and over – every day. Then it moved from being just a new exciting experience to a full blown addiction. We had support groups, conferences, fabulous AS/400 friends, and we could share our experiences in testimonials, and water-cooler chat. Our AS/400 buddies shared our obsession, and we even had celebrities to gush over. Life was wonderful.

Then one day, IBM changed everything. Well, one thing, really. They stopped selling AS/400 servers, and started selling something called an iSeries. Sure, it ran OS/400, but it was not ~our~ AS/400. It looked like a different server, but it ran just like an AS/400, smelled like an AS/400, let us code like an AS/400 – it was a duck! So, we called it an AS/400.

On another day, IBM, realizing their branding mistake (eServer…), decided they would stop selling iSeries, and released a new box called a System i5. And, they renamed the operating system to i5/OS. Quickly realizing their mistake, they surreptitiously took the 5 out of the server name, but left it in the OS. Stubbornly, we still called it an AS/400.

And then, one recent day, IBM stopped making the AS/400 – well, the System i. Just like they had done with the S/38 and S/36, they released a new product which was the result of merging two product lines. This new product took advantage of the power in the name of their chip – Power, and the servers released in 2008 were called Power Systems. Now the hardware was able to run multiple operating systems, and one of them was called IBM i. It looked like a duck, smelled like a duck, so we called it an AS/400 and ran around blaming IBM for renaming the platform – AGAIN!

Today, our glorious past is over. Our IBM i on Power is simply not an AS/400. We can now eat solid food, yet we continue to ask for gruel. We want the old stuff, because the old stuff was so cool, so amazing, and we are geniuses on the old stuff.

Now, consider a YiP – a young i professional. Someone who comes to the platform recently, someone who wants to be excited about something, someone we know will experience the same religious fervor for the platform as we did, someone who has passion bubbling out of them, someone who is ready and willing to learn. Wait! Wasn’t that YOU? Once upon a time?

Now, tell them all about the AS/400. Tell them about SEU, and how it can show almost 24 lines of code at a time. Tell them how you create a physical file with some simple lines of source code called DDS. Show them how you create a user interface that fits on 24 rows by 80 columns of green screen. And be sure to show them how Client Access.. er.. iSeries Access.. er.. IBM i Access lets them modify the 8 background colors and 8 foreground colors so you can have multiple windows open and know what you are working on. Tell them how you write the entire code in one linear mainline program – but of course, use modern constructs like subroutines and looping – none of that old GOTO stuff! Explain how you have to exit the source code, then submit your compile to batch, wait your turn, then go check a spooled file for the compile results. Teach them to “work with” stuff, and show them how you can change priorities and timeslices on jobs so you can get ahead on the queue. Show them how to end a job, and how to copy your compiled program into a production library.

You will be laughed OFF the planet. They will think you are talking about knitting (spooled file?) and won’t want to end their job – they only just got here! They will walk away thinking you are the most out-of-date programmer on the planet, and they will never want to use an AS/400 ever again.

Now, show them IBM i on Power. Show them how you can graphically manage tasks, reports, schemas, tables, indexes, views. Show them how to use RD Power to edit source for multiple programs simultaneously. Show them where to run PHP programs, and show them how to write RPG free format, leveraging the power of ILE.

They can only think that this is a modern platform. And, where is the AS/400? It has been left in the last century.

The comments on the LinkedIn discussion were really quite discouraging. If this is what our community thinks about our platform, then there is a bunch of doom and failure waiting to happen. I do know, though, that this is not representative of the community. Those people who are stuck in the past, living with their fond first kiss, are becoming fewer and fewer.

As IBM updates IBM i and RPG, and continues to invest in this operating system, and as we see that Power Systems are the best, most scalable, highest performing servers for business, we see that the combination of IBM i on Power is our new first kiss. It has come a long way from the AS/400 we love.

So now it is time to check yourself. Are you a proponent of AS/400? I expect you will be. Are you a proponent of its future? Keep calling it an AS/400, keep coding in SEU, keep using DDS to build your database, and you will simply fade into the past.

I added a comment to the LinkedIn discussion, and ended with this paragraph. I do the same here..

Keep your blinders/blinkers on, and you won’t see change in the world. Open up your skillset, open up your eyes, change your perspective just a little, and you will see that there IS an interest in this platform, it is not dying, and young people love it.


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BobJanuary 12th, 2011 at 10:20 am

Great post. After 23 years of programming I have to stay aware of when I harken back to the “gory, glory days” of programming with sticks and knives. Or at least not stand there puff-chested at the behemoth I had created with it.

Of course, to stand there and marvel at the fact that I did it that way once but now do it with a tiered-architecture that communicates across languages and platforms would be o.k.

DeanJanuary 13th, 2011 at 8:51 am

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I have always looked forward to new changes and updates to the, how you say, AS/400iSystemi5IBMi, best computer hardware in the world. . ! ! As an IS/IT Manager I found it frustrating at times that I had a 50/50 ratio of programmer that would move with the new changes and those that just would not. . . It made it so hard to move forward in providing a company with new tools, new ways of accessing data and new ways to reduce expenses. I have ached to use these new tools. I guess I just don’t have the skills to teach management.

Now, I find myself in world where, due to an acquisition, my life is stuck in a Linux and Oracle world as a project manager and the IBM i we have will die some time in the year of 2012-2013. I sit here knowing that this project we are on (now over schedule and over budget. go figure) could have been done on time, if we would have gone with the AS400iSystemiSeriesi5IBMi system, the project would be done. . .!

CozziJanuary 13th, 2011 at 10:13 am

I have to say I’ve never read one of your blogs before. This was is similar to a few others I’ve seen over the last decade. The difference is, I laughed while reading it. So that makes this installment better.

The major problem is just as you pointed out, old farts telling us how great it was and trying to keep it that way. But more importantly, without a brand that people can pronounce and remember, this platform is strictly a legacy system, period, and will never be anything else.

So you’re subtle but, in my mind more accurate points were IBM marketing made the mistake of diluting the platform’s identity/brand and for self-pride or plan stupidity, never recovered.
The Apple Mac brand is at least 5 years older than AS/400, yet it continues to be the fastest growing market segment. What would that be? It reinvented itself several times, but never lost that brand identity.

For decades I’ve suggested IBM come up with an operating system name and sell that as the brand and forget the hardware branding efforts. But “I”? That’s something only someone who actually markets things can do (see Apple “I OS” for an example).

Here’s my 2 cents worth of recommendations to cause a rebirth of AS/400 branding:

1) Change the name of the product to AS/xyy where “x” is the POWER generation, such as “7” and “xx” is “00” or an incremental value when the “plus” version of POWER is launched. So the current generation of hardware would be AS/700. When POWER8 is shipped, launch a new box called AS/800.
That does several things, it gives AS/400 folks something to remember, and when I go into a shop and say “You need an AS/700” and they say “what’s that”, I can reply by saying “It’s the current generation of AS/400”. And they’ll say “Okay”. Better yet, use POWER/700 for the hardware name. Gosh that’s even better!

2) Change the name of the operating system to something people will use as a noun. Like Windows and Linux it needs a (real) name; not one is not version sensitive. So not “i5/OS”. I proposed using “BLUE” as the OS name at least a decade ago, but that’s probably not doable today. Only a business with a marketing department that is creative/knowledgeable in consumer-based marketing could do something like “IBM I”. IBM is not currently one of those companies. Apple did it, but I’ve already suggested why that is.

Jon parisJanuary 13th, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Having recently taught a number a number of classes to non-i folks about the joys of modern RPG and the i platform, I can confirm that even the most confirmed Unix or Windows folks can be impressed and excited by the platform.

Interestingly though one of the things that made a big impression with all of the groups were some of the features that are mostly used through the green screen. Not SEU or SDA or any of those kind of programmer utilities (they rightly shuddered and crossed themselves when presented with those) – but the extended help and prompting options on commands and the logical (mostly) structure of command names etc. etc.

Most Unix geeks, and indeed many Windows programmers still use the command line for many things. Our is better than theirs – so we should include that plus in the list. Yes we can also get at much of this through Ops Nav or the new browser version, but frankly those are still too slow for me to want to use most of the time and there is still functionality missing there.

angustheitchapJanuary 13th, 2011 at 3:50 pm

@BobCozzi: We can spend a lot of time discussing how ~we~ want IBM to do marketing. And, no matter how good your ideas are, no matter how sensible your ideas are, it is IBM who will continue to do that marketing. And, rather than lay back and let the world run over us by calling us legacy, I believe the ~only~ solution we have available to us is to market the platform ourselves.

Simple example, take your AS/700 idea and put it out there:

I have personally seen how the transition to Power and the new IBM i name have had a positive impact. Working with a software vendor when we sold System i and our software, the competitors would claim it was just an AS/400. From the first IBM i on Power RFP, the number of customers who pushed back dropped quite dramatically. It seems that the competitors don’t know the connection to the AS/400 heritage, so they lost the ability to slam us.

Which bodes well for the future. IBM i on Power appears to be new and exciting and cool. Power is a great brand for IBM, and we can brag on that almost as much as we can brag on IBM i. We certainly have a new day, and a new way to leverage all the amazing things we can do with the platform and move into the future.

Obviously, this approach will not work with the existing customer base. Many of them have management who think AS/400 is old (which it is), and given that we keep calling it by that name, we (yes, us) propagate that definition of old and legacy. We can easily fix that (as I wrote in this blog entry), but it is my opinion that we spend far too much time focusing on what has already happened. We don’t like that IBM changed the name! So what, they did. We don’t like that IBM doesn’t market our platform the way we want! So what, whining don’t change that.

And a last thought, IBM i on Power has been with us for more than two years. Regardless of personal preferences, it ~is~ a brand. It is my opinion that if we ALL got behind that name, it WOULD become a brand. So, get behind it, or stay behind.

Gary MillerJanuary 17th, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Excellent points expressed by all…I’m all for IBM i on IBM Power…

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