Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What Originally Drew People to the IBM Midrange Platform, and What Will it Take To Do That Again?

As I spend my normal 20 minutes after a busy day looking through Linked In posts and comments that LI thinks I'm interested in, I see a lot of the same thing.

Bickering.  Fighting.  Self-Righteousness.

So, I thought I'd spend just a few more minutes penning a blog entry.

When my career first started, I was lucky enough to get an internship at a local Clinic in which they used the AS/400 and RPG.  I believe they were on V2R3 as a matter of fact.

I really wanted the COBOL job, though.  But RPG was fate, I guess.

I fell in love with it.  Sure, it wasn't what I was used to having self-taught myself BASIC at the age of 8 or 9 on a TRS-80 Color Computer and then playing with languages such as Ada, Modula-II, C, etc in college.  What was this RPG?  Assembler Code?

But, once applied to real world situations I saw the genius behind it.  It actually got things done.  I quickly became comfortable with what really was nothing more than another syntax to learn.

I remember back in the days of News400 and Midrange Computing magazines (of which I was lucky enough to be allowed to write for!). People were excited to be on the platform.  We were excited in sharing our accomplishments, and we were excited to wait for the next issue when we were again given tips to help us in our everyday job.

We all got along.  We defended our platform with every last breath.

Then came the first name change.  Then another.  Then another.

It was with these name changes that I started to hear inklings of "The AS/400 is dead" or "RPG is dead".

Yes, maybe the name "AS/400" was dead in the eyes of IBM.  But not to those of us who love the platform for what it is, not what it's called.

I try very hard to always call it the IBM i (or the current name).  But that is just nomenclature.

Just like we Americans call tissues "Kleenex", this wonderful midrange machine and operating system that seemed like it could do it all was forever branded an AS/400, or at least until the die hard platform lovers are no longer in the picture.

Maybe 30 years from now we will only hear wild tales of this so called AS/400 that actually allowed work to get done.  Back before the internet.  Back before Facebook, Twitter and Linked In.  Back when real work was done.

But to he point...

What made the machine popular?  How did IBM sell those first few machines, and how did it catch on?

Instead of scaring others away with the bickering, lets try and remember why we love the machine like we do, and find out what made it great in the first place.

But, judging from the comments on this site, it appears things haven't really changed for over 11 years.


  1. Thanks for this EXCEPTIONAL, thought provoking piece!

    I concur wholeheartedly!

    1. Thanks. I wrote it fast one night and after reading it through again I ended up fixing a few things in it, but the message is still the same. :)

  2. I worked with (developed, supported, managed) the "AS/400" for more than 25 years and enjoyed every bit of it. I'm not in a job now where I work directly with the system, but I still follow it and miss getting to work with it on a regular basis. In fact, in my new position, I re-wrote their processes that were used for checking and monitoring system configurations and streamlined it, using my acquired knowledge of the system.

    I think for me, and the people I've talked with over the years, the pros that stood out and still do have been the power, backward compatibility and built-in database. Sadly, the cons include IBM's closed system architecture and software (although changing in recent years) combined with a higher upfront cost of ownership, made it a hard sell for many who didn't fully understand it's features and capabilities.

    Even though things have changed now, and they've finally started opening up the platform to new languages and modern features, I think it's about 10 years too late. Most businesses have moved on now. Windows and Linux are the way businesses run, and those are even moving to the cloud. Worse still, many of us who were long time supporters (evangelists?) of the "AS/400", have also moved on, had to in order to keep paying bills. In short, I think IBM killed off the system themselves by not listening to their base, adapting to the changing market quickly enough to support business needs and customer demands.

  3. The question isn't rhetorical. I really am interested.

    Was it because ISVs had software that worked well on the platform (ie, MAPICs, etc).

    Was it because it was an OS never seen before and people were curious?

    IBM had to have marketed this thing in such a way to get people to flock to it for business applications. And all they had was the OS (or shell).

    It had to have been something to get so many on the platform to fall in love with it... and we're talking back in the Sys38 days!

    I was lucky enough to work with someone who knew the Sys36 and watching him type commands to the command line in 36 mode blew my mind. So did the first time I saw a manager type seemingly memorized commands and parameters on the AS/400, but that was different and today second nature to most of us.

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  4. It's a very good question and topic for discussion.

    I think marketing was a contributor, but not as big as a couple of other things. As I see it, there were two major components that contributed to the growth of the plaform. 1) Ripe market for midrange class computers. 2) Strong investment in the platform with multiple systems advancing in size, power and functionality for each.

    When midrange/minicomputers became popular in the 60s, they were seen as a smaller, more affordable version of their mainframe counterparts. The mid/mini brought an enterprise class computer system to small and mid-size businesses that gave them a lot of the same functionality and capabilities as a mainframe system at a price point that was somewhat reasonable and fit their budgets.

    IBM also chose to invest pretty heavily in this new market. First, they came out with the System/3, followed by the System/32, System/34, 36, 38 and then the AS/400. For businesses, it showed that IBM was committed to the platform, add to that, they made it easy to upgrade from one to the next, and keep their code base in tact.

    But then came the 80s, and IBM themselves, introduced the "PC". At first, and for almost 15 years, it was only seen as a "personal" computer, powerful, but limited to only doing small tasks, such as word processing, spreadsheets, and of course playing games. It took many years before these were seen as "business worthy" systems. I think that scale finally tipped in the 90s, when MS started to reach a point of stability, hardware advanced to be powerful enough to handle multitasking, and applications evolved to the point that they were powerful enough to start turning the minds of business leaders, when the price point was perceived to be much lower.

    It's still a great platform, but I think the market has moved on. The perceived value, functionality and availability of the system no longer make it the "darling" it was once seen as by many business leaders.