Big Blue's tortoise pips hares at the finish
Tuesday 11 July 2000
Graeme Philipson is a director of Strategic Publishing Group and Strategic Research.
He has served in senior research and consultant roles for the GartnerGroup,
the Butler Group, IDC, Compass Research, and the Yankee Group Australia.
He also is a former editor of Computerworld Australia.
Later this month IBM Australia will
hold a seminar to promote its venerable AS/400 computer which has just
undergone yet another major upgrade. I have been asked to speak at this
event because I have been following this machine closely since its release
in 1988, 12 years ago this week.
During that time I have become a
big fan of the AS/400. I believe it is close to being the world's most
underrated computer. It is virtually ignored by many consultants and journalists,
yet it is the most widely used non-PC computer in history.
I became interested in the AS/400
many years ago when I noted a major disparity between its usage and its
profile. More than 500,000 AS/400s are in use around the world, including
more than 3,000 in Australia. Nearly 20 per cent of organisations that
use computers to run their businesses use the AS/400. If IBM's AS/400 division
were a separate company, it would be larger than any other computer company
Yet if your entire knowledge of the
computer industry was confined to what you read in the press, you would
think the AS/400 did not exist, or was a fading machine used only by a
small minority of users.
Most commentators and journalists
conveniently or ignorantly overlook the facts about the AS/400, because
the AS/400 is not sexy. The "AS" stands for "Applications System", which
goes a long way towards describing the sort of machine it is, as well as
the reasons for its reputation.
When IBM designed the AS/400 and
its predecessors the System/34, System/36 and System/38 it designed it
as a computer for running commercial applications. It did not have a lot
of bells and whistles and it was not designed around a particular chip
or operating system.
At a time when most of the industry
was designing computers to abstract technical specifications, the AS/400
was designed to handle real world applications. It uses, for example, a
unique memory management system that treats disks and RAM as one large
memory space, anathema to the purists but which makes it very easy to program
The AS/400's massive success in its
target markets (especially in areas like manufacturing and distribution,
where it is undisputed king) indicates that IBM has been doing something
right. That something has been talking to the users of the technology in
a language they understand, which essentially means "solutions", an overused
term in the computer industry, but a relevant one.
People don't buy computers to have
a computer, they buy a computer to do word processing or get the general
ledger out or to build a better mousetrap. In an industry dominated by
technology, the computer press and the computer consultants and the computer
vendors all too often concentrate on the so-called "speeds and feeds" of
the technology, and forget that the technology exists only to help people
do their jobs more efficiently.
More than any of its competitors,
the AS/400 has been a computer that has allowed people to get on with the
job. Most people simply don't care about operating systems or chip architectures.
They just want to do a job, and they will buy what they perceive to be
the best machine to do it.
The AS/400 has been unlucky in that
its popularity has been overshadowed by the rise of Unix and so-called
"open systems" and, more latterly, machines running Microsoft's Windows
NT, now renamed Windows 2000. These architectures have succeeded for very
different reasons than has the AS/400.
Unix was an off-the-shelf operating
system that anyone could use, at a time when a lot of computer manufacturers
were looking for just such an operating system. Many of them were newer
and smaller companies, and they lacked the resources to build their own
They were able to take advantage
of massive improvements in microprocessor and memory chip technology to
build very powerful machines at very low prices, and many of them succeeded
because of those advantages. A whole swag of software companies also rode
that wave, providing databases and other systems to make the new Unix hot
boxes suitable for commercial applications. Unix itself, although cumbersome,
was very flexible, and gradually the Unix market matured to the extent
that it was capable of performing the sorts of turnkey applications that
the AS/400 was so good at.
Similarly, Windows NT will run on
virtually any Intel processor, and so has helped commoditise hardware.
In the early '90s IBM realised that
it had to do something about the Unix challenge. It released its own Unix
machine, but it also significantly upgraded the AS/400. At the same time
that Unix was growing in use, a new phenomenon called client/server computing
had become the big talking point.
Client/server was the most interesting
new technology of its era. Stripped of all the hype, the term simply describes
getting PCs and central computers working well together, sharing data,
processing it efficiently, and helping the users of the technology do their
job. Unix was good at this, and the AS/400 was not.
Client/server was a sort of code
word describing the many changes in the computer industry in the first
half of the 1990s the rise of the graphical user interface and relational
databases, the empowerment of end users, the incorporation of corporate
data into end-user applications, and the like.
In 1995, IBM announced changes to
the AS/400. It rewrote and opened up the OS/400 operating system. It redesigned
the hardware to use its PowerPC chips (the same ones as used in IBM's RS/6000
Unix machine). It introduced a number of client/server and inter-operability
These improvements have continued
with the latest releases, which include the first commercial computers
in the world running IBM's new Silicon on Insulator (SoI) chip technology.
Yet most people still think of the
AS/400 as an old-style computer. They probably always will. IBM will probably
never completely overcome the AS/400's image problem, but the good news
is that hundreds of thousands of happy AS/400 users simply don't care.
Copyright 2000, IBM