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August 01, 2012

Just how good were those good old days?

NewsWire subscribers who receive our email updates have heard that I'm collecting stories about the early 3000's days. I'm working on an autobiography of the 3000, written "as told to" me, by the system. I've fielded phone calls and gotten some nice email stories. Today's was great fun to read and instructive, too. That's because the negative experiences in our lives are remembered clearer than the positive ones. 

What I mean to say is that war stories are more fun to read, chock-a-block with details. Before I offer an excerpt from today's story, I want to make an observation about the 3000's life. It wasn't always the better time we prefer to remember.

Even the president of the Connect user group falls prey to this memory. In his column in the latest user group magazine, Steve Davidek remembered days when HP was packed with people eager to service a 3000 customer. After a disk head crash in 1984, Davidek recounted three HP employees he knew by name who chipped in to resolve the problem. A different time indeed, when Davidek managed just one Series III HP 3000.

Our HP sales rep would visit every month or so just to see how we were doing. Some months he'd even bring a Systems Engineer along to check on things. It was amazing.

Dave Wiseman, who says that "Most of you will know me as the idiot dragging the alligator at the Orlando conference, or maybe as the guy behind Millware," told us a tale of days even earlier in the 3000's life. Buying a system from HP in 1978 meant investing in a terminal to test your application -- before HP would even fill the system order.

One of the first three HP 3000 customers in Southern England, Wiseman was managing at an IBM shop looking for a better system. "I called the HP salesman and asked him in," he says.

What HP never knew is that if the project went well, there was a possibility that they would get on the shortlist for our branch scheme – a machine in every UK branch office. That would be 45 machines when the entire UK installed base of HP 3000s was around 10 at the time.

So the salesman came in and I said that I wanted to buy an HP 3000, to which he replied, “Well I’m not sure about that, as we’ve never done your application before. Why don’t you buy a terminal and an acoustic coupler first and make sure that your application works?"

"Okay," I said. "Where do I buy a coupler from?"

"No idea," he replied “but the 2645A terminal is $5,000."

2645 terminalSo he bought the terminal, and then tested against HP's 3000 in a UK office. "I started dialing into the Winnersh office. (I still have the telephone number and address engraved in my heart). On occasion when I needed answers, I would drive over there and work on their machines."

Wiseman goes on in his early history to praise the improvement that the 3000 delivered to Commercial Union Assurance.

I recall our durability test was to unscrew the feet on the 50MB disc drive and push it until the disc drive bounced off its HP-IB cable. On more than one occasion the cable came out and you could just plug it back in and carry on working. Try that with an IBM and you could expect two days of work to get it restarted.

The IBM guys couldn’t understand how we could run so many users on such a small box, but we were always looking for improved performance -- as we already had the largest HP 3000 around. There were no tools available in those days, so we used tricks like putting a saucer of milk on each disc to see which one curdled first. (Okay, that's not really true. But we did spend a long time just standing there touching the drives lightly just to see what got hot.) We did a full system unload and reload every three months, and unloaded and reloaded most databases at the same time.

Davidek recalls his warm feeling of having ample HP support, but he does recognize it as a bygone emotion. "The customer experience today is probably not ever going to return to those days, but I would love to come close," he writes. "HP is working on this issue, and with a little luck, we may get there."

War stories are useful for more than the warnings about potential pitfalls. Even from 30 years ago, they remind us the good old days were not as good as we remember. They also remind us how our initiative made the bad times manageable. That's a confidence builder in these uncertain career times.

A 3000 manager needed a little luck, all the way back to the beginning. I'd like to hear about your lucky and unlucky days. Call me at 512-331-0075 if you want to chat, or email me. By recalling both the good and the bad, we can chronicle the middle path for that autobiography. 

04:13 PM in History, Homesteading, News Outta HP, User Reports | Permalink

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