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By Joel Klebanoff

A System by Any Other Name

Note to readers: This article first appeared in a publication directed primarily to Information Technology professionals who work primarily with a line of IBM computers know officially known as System i, but still affectionately known as AS/400. Hmm. Speaking as a former IT professional, I'm not sure that I like what that says about the warmth and affection of IT professionals.

My book, BYTE-ing Satire, includes a collection of my early tirade columns along with a few tidbits that appear only in the book. My online audience is composed largely of technical people who work with the System i, but the book is intended for a much broader market, so I provided an explanatory sidebar for the book's version of any tirades that I thought might be too technical for the general public. One of those sidebars includes the following paragraph:

"AS/400 is the former name of a line of IBM computers that is now called iSeries. I don't know why IBM changed the name. The only thing that I can think of is that IBM found several million dollars hidden under a seat cushion so it decided to discard the investment it made in promoting AS/400 and spend its newfound money promoting the new name. Then again, I could be wrong."

I guess IBM has checked underneath the seat cushions again, because iSeries morphed into System i5, which recently morphed into System i. What's up with these IBM marketing folks? Are they intentionally trying to mess with the minds of their customers?

Many years ago, I took a number of marketing courses as part of an MBA program. Those days are well behind me now, but thanks to my work experience and the credentials provided by my MBA, one of the many hats that I'm now able to wear is "consultant." My enjoyment of putting on that particular headgear is greatly enhanced when I'm paid to do so. Thus, I despise giving away free advice. But, being in a magnanimous mood, for the benefit of any IBM marketing people who may be reading this, I'm going share something that my professors told me was the number one rule of marketing communications: When creating marketing messages, whatever else you may do, take great care to ensure that you don't confuse your customers and prospects. Got that, AS/400, aka iSeries, aka System i5, aka System i, aka whatever-the-hell-the-nom-du-jour-is marketing people? Don't confuse your customers and prospects! I didn't think that was a particularly difficult rule to comprehend, but if you're having trouble with it, feel free to give me a call and I'll try to explain it to you in simpler language.

I, for one, was very upset when IBM switched the name from AS/400 to iSeries. It wasn't so much that I loved the AS/400 name, or that I found iSeries in any way offensive, or that I couldn't understand why the hell IBM was doing it (although I couldn't). No, my reason for hating the name iSeries was much more practical. You see, in addition to writing for MC Press, I do some writing for a couple of vendors that sell software in the iSeries realm. That amounts to a lot of iSeries-related writing. I can't tell you how many hours I've spent rewriting sentences to avoid starting them with "iSeries" because, whenever I do start them that way, I have to devote quite a bit of time to trying to convince Microsoft Word to not capitalize the leading "i." Because it's at the front of a sentence, Word says, "Oh, I'm sure you really wanted to capitalize that 'i.' You must be a little tired and confused. Don't worry. Just relax and keep typing. I'll correct it for you automatically, without any bother on your part. There's no need to thank me. It's my pleasure." You're absolutely right, Word. I would like to capitalize it, but IBM, in its infinite wisdom, decided I shouldn't, so please don't.

The evolution to System i5 improved things, because the "System" ahead of the "i5" means that I never have to start a sentence with a lower case "i." To be more precise, I should say it would have improved things if I knew anyone outside of IBM who uses the System i5 moniker. I don't, so I continue to use the iSeries name in all of my writing. For my sake, would everyone please start using the System i5 name? It will greatly improve the productivity of my writing and it is, after all, all about me.

Now IBM wants to go to System i. Damn IBM! Try typing a standalone, lowercase "i" anywhere in a sentence, not just at its head, using Word with the autocorrect feature turned on and its default settings unchanged. Guess what Word wants to do with that "i." Right. It tries to be very helpful by automatically capitalizing it for you because, as everyone knows, lower case "i" is not a proper English word. With System i5, Word accepted the lowercase because it was smart enough to know that you weren't trying to type a real word, but drop the 5 and the autocorrect feature immediately gets to work. Consequently, this week's tirade took considerably longer to write than most, but MC Press isn't going to pay me one penny more for it. As I said, damn IBM!

I have a confession that I'm going to make at this point. Despite what you might think based on the venom I've spewed so far, I didn't come up with this tirade topic. The people at MC Press put me up to it. They were probably hoping that I'd take all of the responsibility for tweaking IBM's nose, but that's not going to happen. I'm a generous sort of guy. I like to give credit where credit is due.

The idea arose because the folks at MC Press have been questioning the wisdom of IBM's naming strategy (assuming, of course, that there is a strategy at play, which may not be a valid assumption). What's more, they've been hearing a few choice words on the subject from their readers. When MC Press asked me to write a tirade about the ever-changing brand names, my only question was, will my writing fee be reduced because I didn't choose the topic? No? OK, I'll do it.

Being much less well-informed than the full-time denizens at MC Press on all things concerning the system formerly known as AS/400, I requested that they provide me with a little background information. Thomas Stockwell, Editor in Chief, offered the following:

"Here's the impact of what they've done with the branding of the product:

  1. Called it AS/400 and got a big install base.
  2. Called it iSeries eServer, and everybody still called it an AS/400 anyway.
  3. Just when they started getting everyone used to the idea of calling it an iSeries, changed it to System i5. So now there's even more confusion.
  4. Within the same year, started calling it a System i. (Or maybe it's phonetically called a 'sis-tem,' eh? With a lowercase 'i.')"

The parenthetical comment Tom provided with point four, which I'm sure he provided primarily for my benefit, made me question whether I was the right person to write this tirade. After all, being Canadian, something called "sis-tem, eh?" has, to my ears, a very natural ring to it, eh? And that's not just my tinnitus talking. Despite my doubts, I pressed on with writing the tirade.

Some of what Tom told me came as a surprise. For example, I have to come clean and admit that I entirely missed the recent shift to System i. Apparently, I (or is that i?) wasn't paying attention. So I went to the IBM Web site to find the announcement. When I couldn't find it, I sent Tom an email asking him to forward the announcement to me. This was his response:

"There is no 'official' announcement of going from System i5 to System i. IBM prefers to see the i5 box as a part of the 'system i family.' This lets customers and Business Partners believe that they can hope to see an i6 sometime in the near future (the i5 uses the IBM Power5 processor). One hopes they change the naming convention before they come to the 'System i ate.' But that probably won't occur to them until sometime during the eleventh hour, at which time everyone will have succumbed to IBM System i(ndigestion)."

Jeez, everyone's a comedian. Cut it out, Tom. That's my gig.

Tom, I can assure you that, unless things have changed at IBM over the past few years, "the System i ate" will never occur to anyone at IBM. Why? Let me explain. Several years ago, at the time of the launch of AS/400 Advanced Series and for a couple of years after that, I did considerable writing for the AS/400 marketing people under a subcontract to another marketing firm. Before I was allowed to start that writing, I had to read what, if my memory serves me, was a 20- to 30-page legal-sized document that described, in excruciating detail, the things I could and could not and should and should not say about AS/400 and how I should and should not say them.

The two strongest rules were that, first, I couldn't call AS/400 a "box" and, second, and more importantly, I couldn't put an article, such as "an" or "the," in front of AS/400 unless there was a descriptor, such as "server" or "business system," after it. "The AS/400" without anything after it was strictly verboten. The reason I was given for the stringent enforcement of this rule was that a leading article would weaken the brand and threaten the AS/400 trademark by turning it into a generic name, rather than a proper name. (Whenever I complained about the awkwardness of the resulting sentences, I was told, "You say 'Joel,' not 'the Joel' or 'a Joel'.") My understanding was that IBM considered the use of "the AS/400" to be a capital crime. I might have been mistaken about that, but I wasn't prepared to take the chance.

Of course, not being bound by that rule, everyone outside of IBM referred to it as "the AS/400," not "AS/400." Consequently, should System i5 eventually graduate to System i8, everyone else will get the "the System i ate" joke, but it almost certainly won't occur to the marketing gurus at IBM because of the rule about not using "the."

In case any IBM marketing people are reading this, let me share some knowledge I've acquired over the years. In my day job, I've written dozens of case studies about companies that use software products written for the system formerly known as AS/400. What's more, during the time when I wrote for IBM under a subcontract, I composed well over 30 and probably more than 50 case studies about IBM customers' use of what was then called AS/400. All of that case study writing taught me at least two things. First, a very high percentage of the people working with the what's-its-name system love it and would be willing to fight a duel to the death to defend its honor—and that's only a slight exaggeration. Second, I learned from my more-recent work that many—probably most—of them still call it AS/400.

So IBM marketing geniuses, I(i) have a question for you: If you weren't able to get people to stop calling it AS/400, what the hell makes you think that you'll be any more successful at moving them all the way from AS/400 to System i or whatever the heck you're calling it now? Eh? Answer me that! Never mind. It was a rhetorical question.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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