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In art and in life, people sometimes reach the brink.  Hamlet barely managed to get through five acts.  Paul Wittgenstein, brother of philosopher Ludwig, withstood stunning tragedies yet lived to a ripe old age.  James Stewart's character George Bailey, in It's a Wonderful Life, was about to deep-six himself when an angel intervened.  That other Stewart, Martha, is several gloomy thoughts away from a Happy Meal.  And the iSeries may have just made a crucial turn for the better.

What looks to be an inflection point for the iSeries has been signaled by the inception of a marketing plan called Operation GreenStreak.  GreenStreak is basically an effort to get users of low-end AS/400 machines to move to iSeries versions of hardware and software, and to get somewhat peppier configurations.  It is also intended to stimulate the acquisition of iSeries boxes by new users and by established OS/400 sites that might be able to find value in an additional server or two.

iSeries model 170
iSeries 170
In the dustbin of eBay

The plan, if successful, will reverse a deadly downward trend in the iSeries world.  The iSeries population was in danger of eroding, much the way the installed base of IBM's other proprietary system, the mainframe, has.  It's probably too late to save the mainframe from confinement to a couple thousand sites worldwide.  Users of small mainframes are dwindling, and few, if any, are developing into users of the large mainframes that remain IBM's flagship computers.

But there is still hope for the iSeries, as long as IBM can bring low-end users into the incubator that is the only source of larger shops.  It is a daunting challenge, to be sure, but IBM is at least trying.  The small mainframe doesn't even exist anymore, unless you count emulators in which IBM allows users to entertain the ghosts of what were once prized processors.  (Only the low-end model of smallest current mainframe group, the Multiprise 3000, is actually implemented in hardware, and it cannot run the 64-bit software that IBM says will soon be more or less mandatory.  The next step up, the z800, is too big and too expensive for the majority of mainframe shops, and, besides, it is only IBM hardware if you decide not to notice that it's built by former mainframe rival Hitachi.)

IBM's current iSeries strategy includes another element that is giving new assurance to buyers of OS/400 platforms that, one way or another, they can keep their old machines as long as they want, without undue punishment.  For users of small systems who are in no mood to move ahead (and who may never be), IBM is providing cheap access to otherwise scarce spare parts, obviating the need for maintenance, at least among the brave.  Old Model 170 machines, which still constitute a visible chunk of the installed base, are for sale on eBay in the special shop run by IBM's Global Financing unit.  A base box (which can provide a spare motherboard, a frame, and other parts) goes for about $1,500, and you can be sure it works because it comes with a short warranty and just enough software (OS/400 V4R2) to prove that it is in full working order.

It's a Wonderful Life
It's a Wonderful Life
Give the suckers an even break

Users who want a fatter backup system can also look on the IBM Finance site, where half a dozen or so Model 170 configurations are usually for sale, along with a selection of memory upgrades, disk drives, and whatnot.

Somebody in the iSeries group must have had an epiphany, as did the character George Bailey, which James Stewart brings into a zillion homes every Christmas season.  As you may recall, Bailey falls into a state of deep despair when the S&L he reluctantly but heroically (and, above all, humanely) runs is threatened with demise.  He is pulled back from the brink by an angel who visits the imaginary little New York village of Bedford Falls, a place even smaller and less important than Endicott.  The angel reveals how much sadder the world would be without George.  The upshot is that George goes home to his wife and kids and everything turns out just fine.

IBM's marketing team may not have the brilliance of film director and writer Frank Capra.  It cannot draw on hidden talent in the same league as Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, or Clifford Odets (all of whom worked on the script, but without credit).  But it has managed to overcome the attitude it seems to have adopted during the past few years, one that led it to squeeze iSeries users until they could hardly breathe.

We don't know whether James Stewart, who, incidentally, held a degree in architecture from Princeton and was an Air Force hero in World War II, actually influenced anyone at IBM with his portrayal of George Bailey, but who can rule it out?  Everyone's seen that movie so often.  Wondering about it is as pointless as wondering whether the characters Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street were named after the Bert and Ernie of Bedford Falls.

Well, perhaps not everyone inside or outside of IBM is susceptible to the spirit of It's a Wonderful Life.  Another Stewart, Martha, has lately been looking more like James Stewart's nemesis in the film, the mean and greedy Henry Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore).  How could Martha have fallen from grace?  What ever possessed the billionaire doyenne of domesticity, who, in the hope of making a few (by her standards) extra grand, got hooked up with a bunch of people trying to peddle a quack cancer drug and at the same time tout the stock of the odious company making such snake oil?

Wittgenstein
Paul Wittgenstein
The sleeve is empty
but the melody lingers on

You would think somebody as smart as Martha Stewart would be able to spot image poison a mile away, to say nothing of any actual bad behavior. Stewart may claim a lot of things in her defense, if it comes to that, but ignorance is not on the list.  She is a former stockbroker and knows very well what is legit, and what it not, in the stock dodge.

Martha is hardly alone in looking like she might have pushed things a bit too far.  A few years ago, a very influential executive in the iSeries reseller game, one of the savviest people in the whole computer business — and one of the most aggressive — argued that IBM ought to raise the prices of its machines, and not lower them, to remain competitive.  The economy was booming and users committed to the iSeries simply had to grow.  In the short run, the fellow correctly argued, the users would pay.  They couldn't jump to Unix boxes or Windows NT machines, which were getting cheaper all the time.

IBM listened.  The outcome was a short-lived jump in revenue for IBM and its resellers, as well as a legacy of mistrust on the part of customers that continues to hurt Big Blue.

That's why GreenStreak, a program that really cuts the cost of iSeries equipment, is so important.  It's a welcome sign that IBM is willing to look at things from the other side of the bargaining table.  It's also an indication that the people making decisions about the iSeries are learning to cope with conditions, which right now are not so hot.

If IBM needs a theme song for GreenStreak, it might check out the newly revealed collection of music, some specially composed, that belonged to the late Paul Wittgenstein.  Wittgenstein was a brilliant concert pianist, an accomplishment made more impressive by the fact that he managed his wonderful career, if not a wonderful life, after having lost his right arm in World War I.  Paul's kid brother, Ludwig, was a high achiever, too, and is considered by academics to have been one of the 20th century's best minds in philosophy.

Paul Wittgenstein not only overcame a terrible injury but also managed to succeed despite a bizarre childhood.  Wittgenstein's father, Karl, was the extremely wealthy and successful boss of an iron and steel business in Austria.  He was also a bit on the domineering side.  But after three of his sons, who did not want to go into the iron and steel business, killed themselves (one at a time), Karl decided to cut a little slack for his surviving two sons and three daughters.  The saga was recently detailed in a story about a formerly lost concerto that ran in the August 11 Chicago Tribune.  The setting is Paul Wittgenstein's last home, a place in upstate New York like Bedford Falls.

The tale of Paul Wittgenstein is a lot easier to understand than the writings of his brother Ludwig, which could not be more difficult to digest if they were in Pig Latin, a language often used in IBM announcement letters.  But you read IBM announcement letters, so maybe you think Pig Latin is easy.  For all we know, you think Wittgenstein's Tractacus is, as Martha Stewart would say, a piece of cake.

If you want to be that way about things, you ought to know there is a lot of stuff in Pig Latin on the Web, even the Bible.  The best way to search for such stuff is, of course, to use Google in Pig Latin.

That would be the iSeriesway.

— Hesh Wiener August 2002


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