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LOOKING FOR MR GOODCODE

If you want to know how many people have been searching Google using the term " IBM mainframe," all you have to do is ask.  And if you happen to make this request, you'll find out that the number of searches has drifted downward for the past couple years.  But that's not all you'll discover.

Since the beginning of 2004, which is when the default report starts, eight of the ten topic cities form which these searches have originated are in Indian.  Numbers nine and ten are in the USA.  Moreover, if you look at a regional breakdown of these searches, you'll find that the USA is only fifth most significant region.  After India, which dominates, come Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

The USA may make the mainframes, and it may be the biggest user of the machines, too, but when it comes to curiosity about big iron, to the extent Google searches reflect an urge to learn something, America is a laggard.

Mainframe searches
Waning Interest
Google says that the number of searches for "IBM mainframe"
have been in a slow decline for the past couple years

If the Google reports suggest that something has gone wrong with the American mainframe culture, then a little more googling will turn up additional discouraging news.  A similar trends search on "Linux" also shows a downward drift in search volume.  Moreover, the USA doesn't even make the top ten regions originating searches.  Results for searches on other important computer terms are likely to be similar.

But not all the news is quite that dire.  You can check out "z/OS" and you will find that search volume has held up well.  More American cities make the top ten list.  The regional distribution of searches is not as skewed as it is for "IBM mainframe." But, unfortunately, there are so few searches in news (which Google has under special watch) that the Trends system doesn't even attempt to provide data, as it does with most other requests.  There are plenty of searches for news about "Windows" and "Linux."

The data suggest that there are at least two big issues for American mainframe users.  One is the local problem that a lot of mainframe shops face on a daily basis, the shortage of technical people with mainframe skills.  The other is the strategic problem stemming from IBM's decision to give its mainframe services business a brain transplant, replacing brains everywhere (including the USA) with brains in India.  Big Blue still builds the equipment stateside, but that is of diminishing important to a user who rarely, in fact almost never, runs into a hardware problem but deals with the general goofiness of software on a daily if not hourly basis.

OS searches
Not Just Big Iron
Google searches for "Windows" (red), "Linux" (orange),
"Unix" (green), and "mainframe" are all in a slow decline

If that user can't get help from IBM, he might turn to a consulting firm.  And if he doesn't have a local consulting firm, he might hit the Internet.  If he goes to ibmmainframes.com, which happens to be one of the many sites on the web that tries to connect puzzled users and various experts, that user will immediately see that the site he's looking at is also known as mainframesindia.com.

So it turns out that all the googling from India really does mean something.  It means that India boasts the intellectual resources that mainframe users everywhere need.  It's the mainframe geeks in India who are searching for facts and valid opinions.  They're the ones with the intellectual curiosity, the drive, and the commitment to mainframes that gives Google a workout.  And the Google stuff is only part of the story.  Those same people are also reading manuals, writing and testing code, talking shop, and generally acting like mainframe geeks around the world did, in large numbers, in the irrecoverable past.  Once, India was just one place with a lot of mainframe hotshots.  Now it's just about the only place.

z/OS searches
Subcontinanetal Drift
Web searches for "z/OS" have not fallen off, suggesting steady
interest, but news searches are thin; the searches are from India,
not the USA or other big end user countries

This is a bit of a headache for users elsewhere who might want a software consultant to visit now and then.  It's expensive to bring a mainframe geek from Bangalore to Los Angeles or Frankfurt or Milan.  In fact, it's so expensive that ordinary companies just can't afford it.

Can this situation be stable?  Or it is just a matter of time before Consolidated Insurance Enterprises of Mainstreet, USA, decides to install its next generation of big iron and its next generation of executives a little closer to the source of its most vital technical talent? 

Sure, that's not the way things are likely to unfold at some mainframe shops.  The IRS and the bureau that processes parking tickets for Chicago are going to stay put.  But it's hard to be so sure about the future home of Citibank's credit card operations.

Until recently, the mainframe culture has moved with all the speed of a glacier.  We don't think this is the case anymore.

So what comes next?  Search me.  That's what they say at Google.

— Hesh Wiener August 2006


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