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Another Perspective


There are something like 225,000 iPhone programs available for download from the Apple App Store.  By contrast, there are only about 10,000 true iPad apps.  Google's Android phones have 75,000 apps on tap, more or less.  The original Application System, the IBM AS/400, now called the i like Apple products (but easily distinguished by checking sales volume) has a pathetic Web store selling canned systems under the Smart Cube rubric.  There are about 80 software packages, but only 26 of them are for the i; the rest are for Intel-based Linux servers.

You think I'm kidding? I'm not.  Look at this.

Apple has a Web site for developers where advice is free and tools are free or nearly free.  If you make an iPhone application and want to sell it in the Apple store, you have to get it past Apple's qualification board or whatever the selection department is called and then you have to agree to a revenue split with Apple.  Developers get to keep two-thirds of the take.  Google has what it feels is a similar setup with lots of tools on the Web and so on.

IBM, on the other hand, thinks it's going to make its money off i-only software development tools that, generally speaking, run in an IBM environment that only an i user or developer would have, not Windows or Linux which are cheap or free and – this is the key point – available everywhere.

This crackpot attitude is reflected in the Smart Cube Web site, which has a handful of real applications, software suites that real end users can put to work after getting a machine and the software and suffering through some training.  Most of the stuff on the Smart Cube site is the kind of ERP software that costs five times as much to customize as to buy .  .  .  and that's after an acquisition cost that would make an iPad or Android developer laugh or cry or both at once (if the developer's environment supports multitasking).

It's not that the Smart Cube software is bad.  It's good.  It's the product of top notch programmers with commendable ambitions.

But if IBM wants to get i users to run lots more applications, to make their IBM business systems do the zillion things these users now accomplish by pointing their client computers past the local i box and out on the Internet, it has to attract smart developers.

It's easy to declare that the i operating system market (as distinct from Apple's iOS operating system bazaar) is so small that no live wire developer would put in any time building apps for it, but that is obviously silly.  If IBM offered development tools that let a developer build apps for i 7.1 and also other environments, such as z/OS and Linux, programmers would show up and show off.  If IBM not only helped the developers make a few bucks at this sport, all the better.  And if IBM offered payment and prizes for apps that boosted the themes IBM's marketing execs felt were the best Big Blue had to offer – software that ties in with energy conservation or other activities of commercial and social benefit – even more coders would come to the party.

The very things skeptics say would militate against IBM's success might turn out to be the most attractive aspects of a well done AS store.  IBM's i is a great retro machine.  It speaks EBCDIC, for goodness sake.  How cool is that! Punch cards! Even though IBM has long since ceased making unique hardware for this system, the i golem lives on in firmware.  If IBM would only port it to Linux or Windows instead of condemning it to imprisonment with the Dementors of AIX, it could regain the immortality it seemed destined to achieve when it was young and beloved by IBM management, or at least IBM divisional management.

While the hardest thing for IBM to do, notwithstanding its former motto Think, is to re-think, IBMers who want long careers really have no other choice.  The Lazarus mainframe trick might work some more but with every reprise the odds shift against it.  Same goes for the milk-the-base tactics of IBM's i management.

It's life-or-death for IBM these days, and maybe for the whole Western computer industry.  If the legacy companies in the computer business don't learn from the best ideas of Apple, Google, Amazon, eBay, and Microsoft, they are goners.  They are not just going to hop onto the next good economic wave and surf into the future.  If the leaders of the recent past don't engage the best and brightest in the countries that bore them and gave them generations of sustenance, they not only condemn their nations to the forces that turned Rome into Italy, they will condemn themselves, too.

If IBM thinks it can work some kind of con and make out by becoming the Blackwater of medical information systems or the Halliburton of hospital computing, forget it.  We all know that if those functions are not done by government agencies working on behalf of their host nations, the jobs and the money they generate are going to end up in India or China or Brazil.  The money would go to Russia, too, if Russia weren't too ugly to provide a Petri dish for art and creative science.

It's not like the opportunity is hard to spot.  Walk around an office where people are using computers to take orders, manage manufacturing, coordinate the delivery of services, prepare business reports, or create business documents.  Now look at people using an iPhone, an iPad, or even browsers and various applications on Windows 7.  It's out of the gloom and fog and into the sunshine.  Well, maybe sunshine isn't the right thing; my Windows 7 still bears the design choices of Dell's grey-as-10-year-old-Jockeys color scheme.  (Cheer up Michael, Dell's gonna be okay again someday.) But I digress.  When even Windows starts looking fun, it is pretty obvious that business applications are due for a lift.

Where better to start than that dull old IBM i? And how better to start than by tapping into the cultural dynamo that's sparking smartphone apps and battles among the e-book makers?

— Hesh Wiener July 2010

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