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SOULS OF OLD MACHINES

In the world of Jewish mysticism, there is a concept of demonic possession by a creature called a dybbuk. A dybbuk is basically a soul that has somehow broken free of its original body and for one or another reason becomes a spiritual squatter in the body and mind of a living person. IBM is big on this idea, putting the soul of a System i into the body of a System p. It is also doing well with a similar soul transplant that gives a mainframe life on a processor complex that bears some resemblance to a Power architecture within the z10 machines.

Amazon Kindle
Amazon Kindle
It's not a reader. It is a Web 2.0 service
that happens to have its own delivery device.

IBM is not alone in this practice. Far from it. Amazon and Sony, among others, are behind very sophisticated efforts to put the souls of books and other publications into electronic devices. These companies don't talk about dybbuks, but you can tell they are thinking about such things because they call their transplanted literary souls ebooks, the very next thing.

If you own an Amazon Kindle, you can get ebooks about mainframes that are now dybbuks. In the case of the System i, however, the ebooks are not ready yet, or if they are the publishers have not done a very good job getting on the virtual shelves of Amazon's Kindle store. Sony isn't doing any better than Amazon in the computer dybbuk reference business. The way it looks, there are lots of ebooks for various electronic reading devices about computers, software, the Internet and database systems, but the vast majority of them are about recent or current technology rather than legacy environments. IBM may be working as hard as it can to keep its mainframe and midrange proprietary systems alive, and it talks as if it wants to foster better education for specialists in the z and i worlds. But when it comes down to putting its books into electronic formats that work with various readers, Big Blue has nothing to show. In Crawford, Texas, they would describe this kind of character as all hat and no cattle.

It may well be that IBM is careful about its dybbuk strategy because there could be big risks in exploiting even the notion of a dybbuk, let alone making a business our of soul transplants. About the time World War I was about to get started, a relatively obscure playwright named Ansky (actually his name was Rappoport and Ansky was his pen name) wrote a drama called The Dybbuk. In 1937, in Warsaw, the play was made into a film that scholars say is the best Yiddish language movie ever. Three years later, the Jews of Warsaw were compressed by force into a district known as the ghetto. (That Italian word, ghetto, is from Venice, where Jews had to live in an industrial area famous for its metal foundries; getto or ghetto is Italian for foundry.) It wasn't long before all that was left of many of them was their souls.

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos
Amazon's boss has committed a lot of money and talent
to the Kindle system . . . and now, after a year or so,
it looks like it's starting to pay off.

IBM is also big on putting the soul of Linux into all its computers. This is something IBM's computer dybbuks have in common with the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and iRex iLiad, which are all Linux machines. IBM doesn't even promote ebooks about the virtualization and Linux technologies that its most forward-looking customers seem to be interested in. If one didn't know better, one might think there was some barrier to publishing ebooks, when in fact the situation is quite the opposite.

Let's start with Amazon because it is making the most visible effort to promote its Kindle system. The company's founder and honcho, Jeff Bezos, even arranged for a big plug on Oprah that included a handout of Kindles to the show's whole audience. But Amazon is doing a lot more than getting airtime for its gadget. It also has set up a free Kindle electronic document publishing system anyone can reach via the Internet.

There are also generic ebook publishing sites that provide free authoring software that can be used to create ebooks for all the big name readers . . . and for use with reader software that runs on many pocket, laptop and desktop systems, too.

There are commercial software packages for creating ebooks that may provide features the freebie stuff lacks, such as rights management technology that is better suited to some purposes. But if Amazon gets its way, it will end up dominating the market because it couples its free ebook creation offering with deals for authors (who get a third of the list price of Kindle books sold by Amazon).

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey
She sure knows how to boost books, an aspect of her
enormous influence that has not been lost on Amazon,
which enlisted her to promote its Kindle.

For now, the Amazon Kindle seems to be confined to the United States because the intellectual property rights deals Amazon has cut confine its geographic reach. In addition, unlike other reader systems, the Kindle has a special feature that works pretty much everywhere in the States, a live link that uses the Sprint mobile phone data network to hook every Kindle to Amazon's server farm. This hookup lets Kindle users buy books for instant delivery and it also provides a full backup of every Kindle. This means that a Kindle user who loses an ebook can get a new one, register and very quickly get a fresh copy of the lost ebook library. Kindle devices can get fresh books anywhere in the world outside the Sprint service area via a USB cable that plugs into any PC or Mac, but a book buyer must have a U.S. Amazon account.

Amazon seems to have established working relationships with Adobe and Microsoft to augment the Kindle service it has built. Kindle users can get PDF or Word doc files emailed to their machines . . . and Amazon will translate the materials into a Kindle-compatible format on the fly. Some Word features like hyperlinks don't translate perfectly, but the same links will work if the doc is turned into a PDF first and then sent to a Kindle.

IBM, its collection of software vendors, its friends in the computer education business, its affiliates in academia, and its biggest users whose in-house education and training programs are more expensive than quite a few boutique literary publishing operations are all just missing the boat. IBM might not be best friends with Amazon, but it is a company that does quite a lot of business with Sony, and you can be sure that Sony would love to be Big Blue's official ebook partner.

Okay, maybe IBM is just too sluggish to deal with a Web 2.0 concept like ebooks or just too fancy to pay attention to anything that is featured on Oprah.

But that still doesn't get IBM's customer off the hook. Where's that SHARE and COMMON ebook library? It's not too late to get it started. This ebook stuff is really in its infancy. You can call IBM and get a Power box that houses the soul of an old machine. But it's still early to go to Amazon and get an ebook version of Soul of A New Machine; you have to buy the paperback. For now, if you are a Kidder fan and Kindle user, you can, however, download Mountains Beyond Mountains).

While we're waiting for IBM to get Kindle savvy (and not holding our breath), we're working on a Kindle-friendly Web site for a bookseller. Kindle just might outlast kindling, and that bookseller is a survivor who wants to be ready either way.

— Hesh WienerNovember 2008


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