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Another Perspective


The collection of tales variously called A Thousand Nights and a Night, The Arabian Nights, or A Thousand and One Nights is not one book but many, a compendium of folklore with written roots reaching back to the ninth century.  The cultural sources of the stories flow from ancient India, Persia, Egypt, and various long-lost Arabian Empires.  But The Nights is as modern as today in America or tomorrow in China.  It is widely imitated.  In fact, marketing strategy in the computer industry is based on The Nights model, with one key exception.

The Nights confesses its motive and then acts on it.  Marketing people don't seem to be too big on confession.

Once a king, always a king,
but once a knight is enough

Anyhow, here's basic concept of The Nights, as explained by John Crocker on his delightful Web site:

King Shahriyar had become disgruntled with the unfaithfulness of women, and vowed to have a new wife each night.  Each was to be executed the following morning.
Shahrazad, when her turn came, enacted a clever plan.
Each night her sister Dunyzad would come into their room and request a story.  The King became so entranced by Shahrazad's stories that he would long to hear the conclusion of each one; and night after night Shahrazad would leave him in suspense, thus earning herself a further stay of execution.

Computer users are not unfamiliar with never-ending strings of stories.  The iSeries machines based on Power5 technology, for example, have been the subject of rumors instigated by IBM for months.  IBM believes this builds interest, but at the expense of reduced sales of prior machines to users who feel Big Blue's promise to make a Power4 box obsolete as quickly as possible sounds a mite discouraging.  IBM usually strikes the right balance and gets through product transitions with only a small dip in sales of the old generation, followed by impressive first-day orders for the new products.  In the case of the Power5, however, things didn't quite pan out, and IBM reported that the latest dip was pretty deep; as this newsletter previously reported, iSeries sales in the second quarter were down 28 percent.

IBM may have slipped up this time, but it usually comes out way ahead when it decides to give a new product line some early exposure, larded with implied promises of benefits as magical as those provided by djinns in The Nights.  And, of course, such marketing tactics are not confined to any particular IBM product line or, for that matter, to IBM.  The computer industry just loves to enchant prospective customers with visions of future products.  Microsoft, like IBM, is a master of this, churning up interest in future versions of Windows, Office, and other products well in advanced of their release.  Microsoft even pumps up publicity for service packs, those collections of software patches that presume to address the promises made and broken by one product or by the last service pack for some other product.

Nor is selling the sizzle rather than the steak a practice confined to the computer business.  A whole lot of businesses boost their revenue by addressing the imagination of potential buyers.  Pfizer is currently following a plan, based on Shahrazad's wise strategy, to pump up sales of Viagra.  The company has launched a frequent tryers club.  Pay for six prescriptions and get the seventh one free.  What a come-on!

Just as airline mileage bonus plans help business travelers get free personal flights, this plan is aimed at customers who pay for their own Viagra (not those whose pills are paid for by medical insurance) and might want a special secret bonus.  That seventh prescription won't leave a money trail on a charge card, a benefit that might prove of particular interest to philanderers without ready cash.  And the Pfizer server handling the plan is all https, a model of discretion if it turns out to have all the latest service packs and security patches announced the way Shahrazad promised the next night's story.  The mathematical distinction between Pfizer and Shahrazad is that Pfizer's deal centers on six groups of nights, or 0110 of them in computer country, while Shahrazad's scheme involved 1001.

When the computer industry uses of Shahrazad's method, it is not just confined to product announcements.  It can be applied to whole strategies.  IBM provides some excellent examples of this, and none is more striking than the company's approach to free or open-source software.

IBM doesn't seem to like free software as defined by the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project, at least not for stuff it does with its own money.  IBM has its own open source concept, laid out in the IBM Public License (IPL), and it also has created a version of this license for companies other than itself, the Common Public License (CPL).  These licenses are considered legally incompatible with the GNU GPL, which means that source code modules licensed under IPL or CPL can't be mixed with modules licensed under GPL.

IBM 2Q data
IBM 2Q results
The iSeries, like Sinbad on a bad day,
was beached during the last quarter

This doesn't particularly impact users, and, as far as anyone can tell, it hasn't affected developers, either.  The products under IPL are few and far between and don't seem to be suffering from any legal incompatibilities they might have with GPL source code.  The one IBM offering that had the potential to stir up the free software and open software communities, the Jikes Java compiler, seems to be doing just fine without any change in its legal status.  It is used in many environments, including Linux that is licensed under GPL, without creating any courtroom brouhahas.  The same cannot be said of Linux, which IBM promotes like crazy but does not offer.

IBM steers clear of providing its own Linux distribution, in part because it is not comfortable with the scuffle between The SCO Group and what sometimes seems like everyone else in the world over SCO's claim that some of its proprietary Unix source code has been used in Linux.  Not everyone agrees with SCO, and that includes Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux.  But courts can be capricious, and IBM, among others, is careful when it defines its role in the Linux world.  The same is true of every other hardware vendor: not one of them offers its own Linux distribution.

Sir Richard Burton
Sir Richard Burton
The great orientalist and translator
loved and lived the eastern life

Not having a Linux distribution to sell has not stopped IBM from selling the idea of Linux, much the way not having a story for tomorrow kept Shahrazad from ending each night with a hint of an even more wonderful story for the next.  Shahrazad, like IBM, like every company in the computer business, was incorrigible.  All of them, from Shahrazad to IBM and Microsoft, believe that if they are not incorrigible storytellers they will soon be dead.

The myriad variations on storytelling in the computer business make for a situation that is more like The Nights than it is different from it.  The Nights seems to have been passed from culture to culture over the centuries.  Even translations of the work differ considerably.  My favorite is the translation done by Sir Richard Burton, but many prefer that of Andrew Lang, who was about twenty years younger and more inclined to use ordinary nineteenth century English.  Burton, notwithstanding his gifts as an orientalist and a translator, was a somewhat scandalous character, as least as far as his work went.  He was also the noted translator of the Kama Sutra.  Burton's translation, genteel by today's standards, was considered shocking during the Victorian era.  The book, which came from India, was banned there during the British Raj.

The Nights doesn't pack as much of a wallop as the Kama Sutra, but it is not a children's fairy tale book.  The stories told by Shahrazad have plenty of sex, drugs, and rocs.  Still, without such tales as those about Sinbad the Sailor, who always seemed to be shipping out from Basra, or Alladin, whose unusual lap is known the world over, we would be unlikely to know about the riches of the oriental imagination (and we mean oriental in its old form, when it referred to places south and east of Constantinople).

Whatever translation you might prefer, The Nights not only reveals the power of promises and imagination but also makes it clear that the applications of Shahrazad's method that work must include one key element: if you can't finish a story, you must at the very least promise to provide an even better one tomorrow.

In computer marketing, the Shahrazad test can be used to sort the companies and ideas with staying power like that of The Nights from the ones that will fade away like the empires in which the tales in The Nights are set.

The very same Shahrazadian principle can be applied to other human activities, such as the electioneering process, which right now is the source of quite a few tales or, perhaps, fables aimed at setting the tone of American political life for even more than a thousand and one nights.

— Hesh Wiener August 2004

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