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December 08, 2009

Yes, things could be worse — for everyone

AfterlifeTShirt You could be using IBM's AS/400 servers to run your business, exhorting Big Blue to pursue the path to goodwill instead of profit.

In this holiday season I've stumbled upon a steaming pile of snark about your Transition. There's a shortage of goodwill in many places, but maybe nowhere as obvious as the Web site IT Jungle, where an editor in chief has called most of you stupid. He's even measured the folly of running a newsletter like ours, though he missed calling us out by name by one word.

Timothy Prickett-Morgan writes in The Four Hundred this week to exhort his readers, who love their AS/400s as much as you have adored your HP 3000, that things could be worse for his faithful. In almost 3,000 words of manifesto he chirps that no matter how dire the future looks for a return to IBM's hegemony of the 1980s, life under the ticking clock of AS/400 futures could be worse.

I think the first thing to realize is that things could be worse. Imagine if this newsletter was called The Three Thousand and all of us, seeing the incredible RISC technology that Hewlett-Packard had on deck for its future PA-RISC workstations and servers in the late 1980s, had banked our careers on the MPE operating system, with its own integrated database management system and COBOL applications.

None of us were that stupid, of course.

I can weather that schoolboy name-calling, because in an era of Photoshopped integrity, respect is in short supply. But only from the distance of a New York office could a man with a few decades of IT experience think your Transition arises from stupidity. You believed, like a lover or a disciple, to nurture your relationship. Now your life after the affair is different; your career may be better, perhaps worse.

While it was not Prickett-Morgan's main mission to hoot at your challenge, he did lead with this slapdash foolishness to start preaching to his choir. My aim is to represent your reality in about half as many words. The HP 3000 has been that kind of efficient -- which is why so many of its customers' applications will live on other environments in the decades to come. Precious few will ever boot up under OS400, though.

There's a saying in the IT industry about storage devices, one that applies to all technology choices. There's only two kinds of disk drives: those that have failed, and those that will fail. Nothing outlasts change. But so long as your choice stays in front of change for the lifespan of your career -- as well as the legacy of your decisions -- your choice isn't stupid.

Not a single technology will escape the day of its demise. The signs of IBM's disregard for the AS/400 are right inside Prickett-Morgan's sermon. "The point is, the AS/400 used to lead in technology development, and in a lot of midrange accounts, IBM was not embarrassed or ashamed to lead with it. I haven't seen that IBM for a long, long time."

Nor will you again. Things have changed too much for technology companies like HP and IBM to need to revisit swaggering, innovative behavior that both delighted and imprisoned customers. You were an IBM refugee, some of you, while choosing the 3000. But the unique technology HP created also kept you inside Hewlett-Packard's campus. It was a collegial life when you knew your HP rep no matter how little you spent, when an HP VP like Marc Hoff would pass out business cards with his home number on the back -- so you'd stay satisfied and not be tempted to live off-campus.

HP felt such nostalgia for those days that when the company absorbed Compaq and competing products, Carly Fiorina's team felt the desire to add the word "Invent" under a new logo. Eight years later, half of HP's invention budget has disappeared, making a migration from R&D to Mergers and Acquisitions. As former HP exec Chuck House notes in a new book The HP Phenomenon, it's hard to make acquired companies' inventions deliver like your own innovation.

HPStarbucks OS400, MPE: These were tools created and honed in an era when HP couldn't be seen, like it is today, with its third generation logo in every Starbucks store. HP needed invention to thrive in the 1980s. By the 1990s it settled for a reseller market. By now, it just needs customers for things other companies build. So it buys 3Com, or any of the other billions of dollars worth of R&D magic created in companies too small to have a truckload of flyers in Starbucks.

But to that matter of stupidity in a career: The Four Hundred and Prickett-Morgan are deluding themselves in thinking their own day of dunce-dom can be averted by passionate sermons. I reported on the day the 3000 community members built a football-sized advocacy poster a few miles away from a computer conference where top HP execs could still be expected to attend. The poster paper was recycled, the conference no longer exists, along with the defunct user group that mounted it. The HP execs are still around -- those who haven't taken retirement packages or migrated to companies where R&D is more essential than M&A. And those who remain are talking more, and listening less, especially to sermons. Forget about the home phone numbers.

It's an easier landscape to navigate while your vendor pretends to love your career choice. Once you're in  Transition terrain, the journey toward a secure future is littered with doubt and risk and courage and hubris. Alongside the rocky path, you sometimes see editors in chief and analysts and competitors saying that things could be worse. They could be you.

The truth is that they will be you someday. And once they're transported to Transition turf, they'll hope to have a map of how to land on their feet. They'll get to see what HP did poorly in its migration mantra, as well as how your community stepped up to fill in HP's gaping holes to plan for migration and homesteading. The AS/400 group already has an iManifest advocacy group, a canary perched in the mine shaft of IBM's futures.

Prickett-Morgan spends much time lecturing what IBM should do to revive AS/400 prospects. We have done as much here with the NewsWire, promoting the business choices that a $60-, then $70-, then $80-billion corporation should follow. Being prescient about the outcome of unheeded advice is easy enough. What is harder, and deserves more respect, is making a nourishing menu out of offal that your vendor serves you.

When your vendor's faith fails, like every disk drive, it might look like it did in the 3000 world -- but more insidious, because unlike HP, IBM has not yet admitted how little ardor it feels for the AS/400. To quote facts from our editor in chief, when your platform's division vanishes like the AS/400's has; when you estimate that only 20 percent of your community is investing agressively in your platform; when your Unix division feasted on a lousy deal offered to your legacy customers, then it's "a stupid way to play the midrange game."

If there's stupidity here, it's in HP and IBM overlooking businesses that produce profits. I had a lunch with a 3000 software vendor last week where he said, "I can't figure it. There was still money in the 3000 business when HP walked away. It's not like it was costing them to keep it running." But the bill that came due for HP was a sweetheart's promise to dump a competing product during the Compaq merger. MPE and VMS couldn't coexist in HP's shortsighted vision. But we see many of the same signs in the OpenVMS world that appeared in MPE and OS400 communities. Their members are all the Worried Well, to use a healthcare term.

Here at the NewsWire we hope to be able, with your support and continued interest, to dispel the needless worries and keep your courage up with facts, ideals and honest appraisals. It's an adventure making a career of enterprise IT these days, not a lesson that dispenses dunce hats from editors who know better than to be so smug about things being worse elsewhere. Yes, comparing is the most human form of writing the stories of our lives. But things being worse in a Transition community don't make the AS/400's world look ripe for a resurgence. Thinking legacy shouldn't be an epithet, or services will fund price-cutting, or a unique database will take back Oracle wins, or that new hardware sold under an old brand name (odd, that one) -- well, maybe all those ideas were just a wish for Father Christmas.

I wish Timothy Prickett-Morgan the best of luck in his upcoming business transition. I can be disappointed in this colleague's misstep, but you don't have to feel envious of not being an AS/400 customer. Everything in life is retiring someday, both systems and editors in chief. Until then I hope to spend very little time dancing on ground that I consider a graveyard, while I avert my eyes from my own plot nearby.

02:29 PM in History, Homesteading, Migration, Newsmakers | Permalink

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