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March 28, 2006

When slower development might open new doors

In the world of PC-based servers — one of HP's alternatives to the 3000 — customers are facing another delay in receiving Vista, the most significant upgrade to Windows since the XP release of five years ago. An article in yesterday's New York Times suggests that backwards compatibility is slowing Microsoft's Vista release schedule. It's the sort of thing that began to slow down HP 3000 development, just about the same time that Microsoft rolled out XP.

This kind of backwards compatibility is a marvel for the customer and developer partners to enjoy. But it puts tremendous strain on the technological bandwidth of the vendor that maintains the compatibility. One unexpected benefit to the 3000 community from HP's exit: MPE/iX might get simple enough to give to an outside organization to maintain. A new steward might preside over a streamlined product line.

The comparison between Windows' compatibility and the 3000's looks evident to Wirt Atmar, founder of AICS Research. The MPE/iX supplier of QueryCalc has moved into Windows software in a major way since its development of QCTerm, a free HP 3000 terminal emulator designed to run on Windows-based systems. Atmar said that HP's devotion to the 3000's backwards compatibility gave it something in common with Microsoft — and most of nature.

"As for nature, backwards compatibility is the norm," he said while we discussed the NYT story yesterday. "In fact, it’s the  only way that things can work. There are no major revolutions in code at any point in time. Everything is a continuous flow." For the record Atmar thinks the Times story is nonsense, and that Apple forced AICS to turn to Windows and away from the Mac.

We began life as a 100 percent Mac shop in 1984, but 10 years later, we were essentially forced to change over to PCs, simply because by then Apple had gone through two redesigns  (6800 to 68000 and 68000 to PowerPC) in which they abandoned a significant number of previously working applications (and everything that we were interested in)  in order to rush ahead of Microsoft. Since then, they’ve repeated this  pattern either two or three more times, depending on how you count. I’m surprised that they have any customers left, to be honest.

Atmar went on to contrast Microsoft's compatibility devotion. "I hold Microsoft in very high regard, in the same way that I did [HP 3000 division] CSY, for their commitments to backwards compatibility. If  anything, Microsoft is much better at it than was CSY. For example, in XP, pretty much all prior DOS functionality was resurrected -- and hyperthreaded to boot. I thought that that was pretty damn cool."

The same kind of work, however, CSY could not perform fast enough — keeping the 3000 line in step with applications and systems more than two decades older. It probably delayed the N-Class 3000 releases (using the new PCI bus), which were delivered beyond their expected deadlines. This chilled sales during 2000 and 2001. HP announced its pullout of the 3000 market near the end of 2001.

HP will step away from the 3000 at some point, perhaps in 2009 — a move which, more than seven years after the announcement, will probably signal the end of the backwards compatibility for the 3000 line. No more development, no concern with preserving the value of customer investments made during 1990s. (HP has also used that preservation promise to keep recent N-Class systems hampered in horsepower, saying that customers who decided value propositions in 2002 and 2003 deserve to have their price points protected.) HP's ending could well be a beginning, though, of a simplified line of MPE/iX releases, able to be managed by an outside organization. The HP of this century does not promise such complete backwards compatibility.

The costs of such compatibility can be burdensome, to the point of threatening a product's ability to compete. Itanium-based servers might have been delivered far sooner if their x86 code compatibility wasn't so essential in hardware at first. This year, some Windows customers are wishing Microsoft would look forward, rather than back, to go faster toward the Vista of tomorrow. Others, who can afford to wait for new features, are delighted to preserve what works from the past.

01:39 AM in Newsmakers | Permalink

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