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July 17, 2014

TBT: When users posterized HP's strategy


PosterLargeThe
Orange County Register captured this picture of the football-field sized poster that users assembled to call notice to the 3000 at the annual Interex show. We offer it in our collection of ThrowBack Thursday photos. Click on it for detail.

Recent news about a decline in the health of community guru Jeff Kell sparked a link to another 3000 icon: Wirt Atmar. The founder of AICS Research shared some medical conditions with Kell, but Wirt was never at a loss for gusto and panache. Twenty-eight years ago he started a print job in July, one that wouldn't be complete until the following month, when HP World convened in Anaheim. The 1996 show was held not too far from a high school football field -- one where ardent users of the 3000 wanted to make publicity for their beloved MPE server.

WirtAtPosterThousands of panels rolled out of Wirt's HP DesignJet plotter, driven by an HP 3000 at his Las Cruces, New Mexico headquarters, each making up a small section of the World's Largest Poster. HP had set the record for largest poster just a few months earlier, with a basketball court's worth of 8x11 sheets, placed carefully to make a giant picture of Mickey Mouse. Wirt and his league of extraordinary advocates took on another element while they aimed at a bigger poster, by far. This World's Largest Poster was to be assembled outdoors, in the Santa Ana winds of Southern California.

All morning on that summer day the winds continued to climb, testing the resolve of a growing number of volunteers. Panels would spring up in the breeze, which seemed to flow from every possible direction. Atmar, whose company had printed the thousands of panels over a six week period and who had driven the poster in a U-Haul truck from New Mexico, stood alongside the poster's edge and gave instruction on holding it in place, using gutter-width roofing nails pressed into the turf.

But by 11 AM, no more nails were on hand, and the question was on everyone's lips -- where are they? The winds climbed with the sun in the sky, and volunteers were forced to use shoes and poster tubes to hold the panels in place. As a section would rise up, dedicated customers would call out,"It's coming up!" and then race to tack it in place, an organic version of a fault-tolerant system.

Wirt on the fieldThe document of about 36,000 square feet was somehow kept in place on the high school football field. The work of printing began in July. When Wirt was finally able to point across the field, at the completed poster, he breathed a sigh of relief and good natured fatigue. He quipped that after printing the four-foot rolls of paper needed for the poster, loading them into a van for the trip to California represented “the summer corporate fitness program for AICS Research.”

Atmar, who died in 2009, was never at a loss for words about the 3000's potential and its fate. He touted the former with the zeal of a preacher and bemoaned the latter like a man saddled with in-laws who came to visit and never left. Like community leaders, he could make a sound case for the fact that Hewlett-Packard didn't understand what a gem it'd built in MPE and the 3000. The Poster Project was meant to remind CEO Lew Platt and the vice president of the computing group Wim Roelandts that the company already had customers who were avid about using a computer that had nothing to do with Unix.

At that point in HP's history of the 3000, computers had to at least integrate with Unix. The company had bet its enterprise future on Windows NT up to that point, but corporations were flocking to what was called an open systems environment instead. In truth, Unix was no more open than any other operating system, once each vendor finished called it something like Solaris, or AIX, or HP-UX, and ever more brands. At least MPE was plainly a specific environment.

Poster and housesBut Atmar and his cohorts remembered that the 3000 was a general purpose computer, as first conceived. Demonstrating that the 3000 could produce artwork, and at a grand scale, was one aim of the Poster. The publicity stunt was covered by the Long Beach Press Telegram and the Orange County Register, among others. I rode in the Bell Ranger helicopter to take an aerial shot, but the Register's remains the throwback picture of record.

In an account of the event, Wirt was eager to point out all of the friends and allies who'd made the day possible.

A fair number of the people who participated in the poster can be recognized (primarily by their clothing). Alfredo Rego is walking across the top of the middle football player's helmet. Ken Paul, Ken Sletten and Jon Diercks are all at the base of the group of people in line with the "u" in the word, "Butt." Rene Woc is seen walking directly above the shoe of the rightmost football player. And Jeanette Nutsford appears just below the knuckles of the middle player.

08:08 PM in History, Homesteading | Permalink

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