Thursday, August 13

What Apple did that IBM must emulate

The IBM i server has an image problem, which is why going on a public relations offensive is the fundamental goal of our iManifest initiative.

I am often asked to comment on IBM's decision to unify the System i (AS/400, iSeries) and System P (Unix) server lines - what we now know as Power Systems. My view is that the resulting engineering efficiencies and economies of scale must bode well for the future of the IBM i platform. The flip-side is a potential loss of identity and seemingly zero marketing effort by IBM to explain what makes a Power Server running the IBM i operating system different and special from the same box running a Unix variant? When you add this dilution of brand identity to a brand that was already in trouble - being incorrectly perceived as a legacy system that belongs in the past, not the future - then you create the mother of all marketing challenges. Perhaps even one that is insurmountable? I think not and here's my precedent.

Apple. An innovator that defined an entirely new way of using computers - desktop publishing. They had the vision, they created the whole product solution (with help from the likes of Xerox, Aldus and Adobe) and they owned the market ... and it nearly killed the company. I know because I was selling Apple computers to both the SME and Corporate markets during their hey-day. An Apple Macintosh computer was so firmly positioned as the cute little graphics machine in the corner that people were unwilling to accept the same device as a corporate workhorse. We still managed to sell tens of thousands of Macs to the likes of BT, Kodak, GEC Marconi, Nortel, Glaxo and other big corporates but it was always a struggle and we fought against corporate standards like OS/2 and Windows. Apple did smart things like forming alliances with Digital and IBM but it wasn't enough. They lost the battle for the corporate desktop, began to lose their dominance in the education market but still owned the DTP niche. I won't recount the whole sorry saga here (including the departure of Steve Jobs) because my only point is that Apple came back from the brink and today stand head-and-shoulders above their competitors. They not only have more market share and greater profitability than ever but they have the kind of mind share, influence and cool factor [halo] that any technology marketing executive would trade their first born to enjoy.

So, where are the parallels with the challenge facing the IBM i? Well, first of all, you can bounce back from the brink even if you original niche position becomes the architect of your own demise. So never lose hope and never allow the doomsayers to create a self-fulfilling prophecy; especially when most of those doomsayers are in fact competitors who work hard to perpetuate the legacy system myth because it suits their agenda! The IBM i is a fantastic piece of kit containing technology innovations that still have yet to be cloned or rivalled. The R&D bods at IBM are clearly still very clever and the machine justly deserves the title of World's Best Business Server. But the marketing communications around the platform needs to be reinvented and reinvigorated. Apple rose phoenix-like from the ashes because, a decade ago, they envisioned a digital future for the consumer that no-one else could or did. People like me brought into that vision and, step-by-step, Apple has delivered on the promise. It started with the iMac, then the iPod, then iTunes and the Store, then AppleTV, then the iPhone and so on. I waited for the innovative products and services to come along, and stayed loyal to Apple, because I believed in their vision and trusted them to deliver with their hall-mark quality and design panache. IBM needs to paint a similarly compelling future for the IBM i in bright, vivid colours and get the word out via traditional channels and by cultivating its to-die-for loyal user base and partner ecosystem. It can be done and Apple (and others) have proved it.

Another interesting parallel is how, during the midst of this re-birth and growth spurt, Apple has completely changed its hardware and software architecture. A Mac computer used to be a proprietary box running a non-standard operating system on a relatively obscure chipset. I'm sure this made it more expensive to build and certainly made WinTel users more circumspect about migration. Even silly things like PowerPC chips running at slower clock-speeds than their Intel equivalent worked against consumer buying behavior; fastest is always best, right? Today my MacBook Air is an Intel laptop running Unix with a GUI front-end. But I'm willing to pay six times more for my Mac than, say, a Netbook with an Intel CPU running Linux or three times more than a regular WinTel laptop. Not only is Apple assembling great products from standard components but I'm willing to pay them a HUGE premium (in IT terms) for the privilege of owning one. Why? Because it all just works. The Total Cost of Ownership is less than the WinTel equivalent. Designs are so good that I actually get a thrill using their products (well, I'm an ex-geek after all). Apple defined the segment, cracked the marketing problem and became a worldwide phenomenon again. Successful tech companies are rarely one-trick ponies and usually under-go major transformations every decade or two. It's time that the IBM i server business followed suit.

So the "only thing" that makes an IBM i different is the operating system and the stuff that plugs into it or runs on it. Well, Apple have proved that this difference alone is enough to win. Dispel the myths, tell great stories and commit to a compelling future that others can trust and buy into. It can be done and, while we in the IBM i community may have lost some recent battles, the war is not over until we lay down our arms.