Back rub, anyone? Big Blue loosens up

IBM isn't just unbuttoning its tie. At PC Expo, the tech giant will strip down its image - pocket protector and all - at a Geek Spa gathering,
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

IBM believes that developers want more than cheap beer and lousy pizza. So, next week during PC Expo in New York, Big Blue will roll out the red carpet, geek style.

On Wednesday night, IBM has invited 500 of its new best friends to a Greenwich Village night club for a "Geek Spa." There, the company will treat attendees to neck, back and shoulder massages; bathrobe and slipper giveaways; aromatherapy sessions; and a full "oxygen bar." Invitees received their Geek Spa invites in the form of clear bars of glycerin soap containing embedded invitations, wrapped in white washcloths.

It goes without saying that this is not your father's IBM hosting this event. But the Geek Spa party, which is slated to cap IBM's relaunch of its WebSphere commerce development platform, is definitely a Big Blue event.

In recent years, IBM has made a number of attempts to bond with the developer community. But even IBM executives admit their efforts largely have fallen flat.

IBM wasn't trendy enough to appeal to the dotcom and Web integrator shops. And, although its Visual Age tool suite had a loyal following, IBM wasn't fostering a sense of community among developers anything like that achieved by Microsoft. Microsoft's "Geek Fest" parties, developed and conducted on a shoestring budget by a small band within the company's developer division, were legendary. With its "cheap beer and lousy pizza" slogan, Microsoft had found a way to make it hip to be a geek.

Developers are one of Microsoft's main constituencies, and company officials know that. At the company's TechEd developers conference in May, Microsoft chief software architect Bill Gates announced a three-year, $2bn (£1.33bn) plan to help train developers on Microsoft's current and forthcoming suite of XML-enabled tools and products.

Now, IBM's Integration and Transformation division is endeavoring to strike back. (No one would claim that IBM's top brass is risking trendiness, as witnessed by still-clunky division and product names.) The WebSphere team is taking aim at not only Microsoft, but also Sun Microsystems, BEA Systems and other companies making a play for e-commerce developers. IBM's goal: to be able to claim by the end of this calendar year that it has signed on five million new WebSphere developers -- no mean feat.

"IBM always had a tendency to be polite in our marketing," acknowledged Valerie Olague, director of product marketing for IBM's business transformation unit. "We never hit back when we were hit. But now, when some of our competition engages in below-the-belt marketing, we're making sure to publicly refute the things they say.

"We take risks now. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," Olague admitted.

To hammer home its developer pitch, IBM signed on Olgivy & Mather to create its well-received e-business ads. In recent months, IBM has added reinforcements: New York City viral-marketing experts Renegade Marketing Group and the San Francisco-based Web integration firm of Organic.

Renegade is the mastermind behind IBM's Geek Spa event, as well as behind a number of other recent IBM developer fests in the San Francisco Bay area, Boston and Seattle.

"We're using guerilla tactics to talk to the developers," explained Renegade president Drew Neisser. To attract the right community, Renegade has convinced IBM to engage in some very non-IBM-like activities, such as renting giant remote-control race tracks or taking over for a night some of the hippest bars in big-ticket towns.

Each time, the feedback has been the same, Neisser said. "People say, 'I can't believe it was IBM who did this.'"

Organic has been instrumental to IBM's own brand of "thinking different," to borrow from Apple Computer 's latest marketing slogan.

"Instead of marketing to CIOs and CEOs, we're now trying to go after the engineers," noted Rich Buchanan, associate director of engineering with Organic. "CIOs and CEOs aren't the ones dictating the solutions any more. The new bottom line message is, it's good to be a geek."

Is IBM making headway? One Web integrator partner thinks so.

"Our IBM relationship has had an impact on our strategic direction," said Bob Monio, strategic relations director for Chicago-based integrator MarchFirst. "What they did with WebSphere, in terms of making it a plugable foundation tool, for example, gave us a common framework for B2B, B2C and exchanges."

MarchFirst has relationships with just about every commerce-software vendor out there, Monio said. "But in these (e-commerce platform) markets, the traditional players just don't have the standing they once did. We are looking for companies with solutions that are 20 percent customisable, 80 percent plugable. And we're looking more and more for companies with multivendor solutions."

Now, if only the rest of the geeks buy in ...

The PC gave birth to the Internet. Now junior is leaving home, and it's nowhere more obvious than at PC Expo, where PCs are the last thing you'll find. Click to learn which gizmos will leave your PC keyboard gathering dust. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment from Jesse Berst.

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