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March 2003

Commodity Technology: Is the Jar Full at All?

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By Joseph Rosenblatt

Users of “Gem” jars are finding themselves in a technology pickle.

Most people know of the standard canning jar with a 70 mm mouth and the wide mouth jar with an 86 mm mouth. For many years a sizable minority of people used the in between sized Gem jar with a 78 mm mouth. Bernardin Ltd. manufactured the Gem jars and sealing lids for these jars. Three years ago Bernardin stopped making the jars. Bernardin opted not to convert the machines that make Gem jar lids to metric standards. When Bernardin built a new manufacturing plant, they did not include the non-standard Gem jar lid machines. Instead, Bernardin decided to go with the “commodity” market and standardized on the two more widely used sizes.

Since the lids from one size do not fit jars of another, this action renders the 78mm jar useless for canning. If you possess a dozen or so jars you can chalk it up to fate and buy a dozen or so of the other sizes. If you possess and use a few thousand, as some do, then your canning operation is in for a major “retooling” expense.

If this can happen in the relatively low-tech world of jars and seals then what about the fast moving high-tech world. What is to stop a company from discontinuing a popular technology? We all know the answer, absolutely nothing.

Like MPE-ers, Gem jar-ers are organized. (They obviously would not use the name Open Gem Jar since they are trying to close the Gem jars.) They have websites and lobbyists. One woman is trying to get the Canadian Parliament to force the manufacturer to make the lids. Unlike MPE-ers, Gem jar-ers, are not being offered an “upgrade” program. The company does have a website extolling the virtues of wide mouth jars. To its credit, Bernardin has not scheduled any Gem to wide mouth migration Webinars.

Bernardin says, ”We know of no remaining inventory anywhere.” The Gem jar-ers are using every means possible to find replacement parts. The Gem jar-ers are posting requests on bulletin boards, newspapers and websites. If they find enough seals to can this year, they will still have to go out next year to find more. Given that there are a finite number of seals, long-term prospects for Gem jar technology look bleak at best.

Is this where we will be in five or 10 years? Will it be HP saying, “We know of no remaining inventory anywhere.” How will we get replacement parts? I hear people talking about cannibalizing other 3000s or even 9000s. (That statement conjures up visions of desperate, tattooed, spiky haired systems people, ala` Mad Max, raiding computer centers for processors, communication cards and bus adapters.) Where will we go for parts when they are all gone?

How do you fight the manufacturer’s decision to support only the commodity market? Marketers create commodity markets. Depending on the desired spin a marketing department can call the same technology “tried and true” or “aging technology” thereby creating or destroying the product’s market. Do they push what sells or is what sells that which gets pushed?

A company needs to make decisions about the direction its technology will take. There is always going to be a certain amount of guesswork, back covering and politics in any decision. One can deal with internal factors but how does one know what the manufacturer will do? The stakes are frightening for those that choose wrong.

Manufacturers have long used the specter of “planned obsolescence” as part of their sales strategy. The high-tech industry has put that specter on steroids. All IT decision makers are all familiar with Moore’s law; many believe that because Moore’s law is true we have to change technology every 18 months. Most are afraid that their company will lose their competitive edge if the do not keep up with the expansion curve postulated by Moore.

According to the old adage, “No one was ever fired for buying IBM.” Apparently, this statement is also now true for Oracle, SAP and Cisco. If the project works you are a genius. If the project does not work, it is Hans Christian Anderson time: millions more will be poured into the same hole in attempt to clothe the emperor.

All of this leaves us with more questions than answers. Since, as we all know, “the best” technology is not always the marketplace survivor, how do we choose? How does one protect ones technology investment? How do IT professionals “keep up” when they find that they have moved off of the mainline and on to a tangent of the technology matrix? If a technology is, marginalized because it is not a commodity does that marginalize everyone and everything connected with that technology?

Thousands of jars of preserves, jams, green beans and tomato sauce may not get put up this year due to the lack of Gem jar lids. Will this cause the economy to fail, people to starve, malnutrition to run rampant or the earth’s axis to shift? The answer is probably not.

Will the demise of the 3000, VMS, Digital’s Alpha systems and other non-commodity technology, due to lack of habitat, precipitate major changes in the IT paradigm? The answer is our old mantra: it depends. It might send thousands of IT professionals scrambling for gainful employment. It could limit choice of IT solutions. It will likely enrich a few and impoverish others, both technically and financially. It will certainly make people think twice about taking the road less traveled.

It looks like we are all in a technology pickle.

Joseph Rosenblatt is a Design Engineer for EMC, specializing in HP 3000 systems. He has been a user and devotee of the HP 3000 for 17 years and hopes to retire as such in another 17 years.

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