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What's in a name change? Plenty

Was changing the name of the AS/400 again a dumb idea? Users certainly think so, but experts say with a company the size of IBM, a product name change is almost irrelevant.

You could almost see the eyes roll. The heads shake in wonder.

IBM's renaming of the iSeries to i5 has set off a round of heated reaction from users dismayed by another name change for the AS/400.

It's a bad and confusing idea.
Allen S. Huber
Independent Contract Programmer

You would think users of the midrange platform would be used to it. After all, it was only a few years ago that IBM started calling new models of the AS/400 the iSeries as part of a new branding campaign. So, really, what's another name change?

Plenty, say users.

"It's a bad and confusing idea," said Allen S. Huber, an independent iSeries contract programmer. "I wonder how Ford would feel about changing the name of the Taurus to...well, I guess there's almost an infinite number of examples."

The server formally known as

After years of speculation about the possibility of a name change, IBM announced earlier this month that its two new servers, the first to be based on the Power5 chip, would be dubbed the eServer i5. It also renamed the newest release of OS/400 V5R3 to i5/OS.

Users are hardly shocked by the news, but many are incredulous that IBM would follow through with another name change.

Read these articles for additional insight into IBM's renaming of the AS/400

IBM forges new ground with next gen iSeries, V5R3

Name change is just a gimmick without strategic re-branding

Would a system by any other name be sweeter?

In October 2000, IBM officially announced that it would change the name of the AS/400 to iSeries. The name change was part of a complex re-branding strategy to converge its entire line of servers under one name – eServer.

A year later, speculation began about a new name for the operating system. At that time, i5/OS was in fact one of the names under consideration.

IBM defends this latest name change by saying it pretty much had no choice if it expected to grow the platform.

Al Zollar, iSeries general manager, has said the company was getting a lot of feedback from ISVs and business partners that the OS/400 implied an older outdated platform and it was getting difficult to sell. He said the new technology was an opportunity to refresh the image of the operating system and leave behind the baggage.

Leave well enough alone

But a lot of users think that's a bunch of hooey and who would blame them? The first name change back in October 2000 was an effort, too, to boost its server revenue, which at that time had been flat for several quarters. Little has changed, observers say.

"Renaming the AS/400 or iSeries to the i5 will not change how the system is perceived in the market place, said Dan Dybwad, vice president of IT, GFG Division of U.S. Foodservice, Grand Forks, N.D. "IT managers will do the translation between their users who still call it the "400" and their IBM business partners who call it the i5. Surprisingly, most of the business partners that call me wanting my business still call it the AS/400."

Well-known OS/400 security expert Wayne O. Evans said if the user base grows it will be because of an aggressive marketing campaign. Changing the name is nothing more than a gimmick and was unnecessary to fuel sales.

"The marketing arm of IBM has lost touch with reality," he said. "OS/400 is a well-known and loved name by happy customers. Some misguided individual decided to change the name from OS/400 to i5/OS. This in my opinion is the height of stupidity."

But branding expert Gib Trub, a principal with Partners & Simons, Inc., a Boston-based advertising communications firm, said while he understands the strong user reaction, it's highly unlikely that this was simply a marketing stunt on IBM's part.

The reason [companies do this] is that they see a need for it," said Trub. "No doubt IBM did quantitative research that indicated [that the name was] a hurdle…an impediment to sales."

Trub also said if it's true the industry viewed the product as old, then changing the name makes sense. However, he said, the strong user reaction isn't surprising and is likely based on fear. Users are worried IBM will no longer support the product.

Chances are IBM hasn't done a good job in selling this name change to its loyal user base, which he said often happens with large organizations.

"IBM has to find a way to allay that fear," he said. "Show them there's some value [to making the change]."

Blunder backlash

A name change isn't likely to hurt IBM's bottom line, however – even if it turns out the name change is as big a marketing bomb as Coca-Cola 's "new Coke" campaign. Companies with solid industry name recognition can usually absorb any user backlash, said Trub.

To users, the name change is little more than a temporary nuisance and they will eventually get used to the idea. But, the company rolled out the i5 name in conjunction with an image campaign, iSeries.mySeries. Many users said they simply did not know what to make of it. Is it i5 or iSeries?

"If there truly was a sales barrier that the old nomenclature represented and this new name gives potential new customers a reason to take a second look, I don't see a lot of downside risk from making this change." said Trub. "If the coordination [with the name change and the image campaign] isn't as good as it should have been, IBM can certainly solve the problem because it has the wherewithal."

Wayne Kernochan, an iSeries analyst and president of Infostructure Associates, Lexington, Mass., said the name change is part of a long-term strategy by IBM to eventually meld its entire product line under one name and said somewhere in the near future there won't even be individual names for the servers, certainly not as we know them now.

It's not that it's a bad idea," he said. "It's just an irrelevant idea. Changing the name is probably not going to change anyone's mind except possibly the IBM sales and service reps --people who would be selling i5 into new accounts."

But there's the rub. If it isn't likely to sell more product, why do it? Certainly, new technology is no reason to change the name, users say.

"IBM deftly orchestrated the conversion from CISC to RISC - probably the largest single change in the system's history -- and the box was still an AS/400 when the migration was complete," said Dybwad. "If IBM can make that change and keep the name the same, there is really no reason why the new system with its significant new technologies couldn't still be called an AS/400."

"The AS/400 has stood the test of time," said Howard Kapnic, MIS director, Empire Atlantic, a garment manufacturer located in Hialeah, Fla. "Sure it has been improved over the years - but it is still, and will always be, an AS400."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Kate Evans-Correia, Senior News Editor

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