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September 06, 2012

Core memories spark a cold start for 3000s

Editor’s Note: Jon Diercks, the author of the only comprehensive MPE/iX administration book, offered us this story of the 3000’s very first year. It was a time of HP retreat from the minicomputer market: HP staff resigning, others unselling a system touted just months earlier as “a happening,” as the slogans of 1972-73 said in HP labs and offices.

Diercks worked at Anderson University in the 1990s alongside Tom Harbron, who’d been the college’s computer department director during 3000’s first months on the market. Diercks said Harbron was heavily involved in early discussions with HP about MPE and IMAGE. 

The institution began as Anderson College, and its very first HP 3000 was one of the earliest models. Diercks said the bragging line in those days was "Anderson College has the first HP 3000 ever installed anywhere between the Rockies and the Appalachians."

Harbron’s report on the 3000’s 1973 is part of Diercks’ 3000 memories, and so he’s contributed the writing as part of our 3000 Memoir Project — in all of its authentic, human and humbling beginnings. It's the first story I've read that details the 3000's retreat. An HP employee who couldn't look his customers in the eye about the 3000, and so resigned. A man whose job was to unsell the 3000s -- and later would bundle the greatest software HP ever wrote, IMAGE, to the Classic hardware, which not long after, fell behind the state of the art.

By Tom Harbron

Reports of problems with the HP 3000 operating system, MPE, continued to be received in the opening weeks of 1973. While it was not encouraging, I had confidence in the basic soundness of the 3000’s design and the integrity of Hewlett-Packard to ultimately deliver what had been promised.

HP’s Phil Oliver called and scheduled a meeting with me for February 6, 1973.  He brought along Bob Stringer, who had replaced Ed Pulsifer as the District Sales Manager; Ed McCracken, who was now HP's Market Manager for Government, Education, and Medical Markets; and Jay Craig, who was a new HP salesman from Indianapolis. McCracken would tell me, years later when he was the 3000 division manager, that the morning in my office was the most difficult day of his career. The people that HP hired were, mostly, an honorable group of people.

On that day in 1973, they had some bad news to deliver. Specifically there were seven points:

1. HP cannot bring the software components of the system up to full specifications before Fall 1973.

2. They are devoting “maximum resources” to correcting the problem.

3. The system will currently support no more than 4-6 simultaneous users.

4. HP will loan an additional 64K bytes of core storage to bring the system up to this 4-6 user level of performance.  (We had ordered the system with 64K bytes of core storage.)

5. IMAGE will be further delayed to January 1974.

6. Because of hardware difficulties, a slower console printer would be provided.

7. They would like us to cancel the contract.  Lacking that, they wish to amend the contract.

It was a tense meeting. McCracken was going about the country, visiting customers, and unselling the 3000. It was hard for everyone. Phil Oliver would return to his office later that day and resign. He told me he couldn’t look his customers in the eye. Ed Pulsifer had already resigned for similar reasons. 

I resisted their pleas to cancel the contract for four fundamental reasons. 

First, I had faith in the basic design of the system. I had run benchmarks that had come in almost exactly where I had predicted from the timings in the ERS. MPE was clearly a better design than nearly anything else then available. The combination was more cost effective than anything else by a factor of two or three. Moreover, I had met many of the people involved with the project and had confidence that they could do the job, given the time and resources.

Second, there really were no viable alternatives on the market at the time. DEC tried long and hard to sell us, but in the end their salesman conceded that the systems DEC had were either too feeble or far too large for our needs; the HP 3000 was a perfect fit. IBM tried hard to sell us on various timesharing patches to their systems, none of which worked well. The only systems available that would do the work were the XDS Sigmas and they cost five times as much as the 3000.

Third, I thought that HP had to make the 3000 succeed if they were to remain a growth company.  At that time, HP had about half of the instrument market and could not significantly expand their market share without anti-trust problems.  Their other market areas, such as microwave, were respectable, but in small markets that were not growing very fast.  

The only way that HP could continue to grow at historic rates was by entering the computer business in a major way. With $25 million already invested in the 3000, they were unlikely to write off that investment and content themselves with their existing markets.  If the 3000 failed, they would have had to immediately start over on another computer project.

Fourth, we had already invested several man-years in application development for the HP 3000 at the time that HP was trying to unsell the system.  It would have been a financial disaster for us to write off all of that work and begin again with a different system.  We really had no option beyond the 3000.

Years later, in a speech before the Users’ Group, McCracken said “I want to thank those of you who had faith that the HP 3000 would succeed at a time when many at HP had profound doubts.”  I’m sure he was thinking of that cold February day he spent in my office.

05:55 PM in Hidden Value, History, Homesteading, User Reports | Permalink

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