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August 20, 2014

Small office — but a modest, social market

The building in Austin, Texas wasn't even devoted to the newspaper entirely. Off in the northern side, the single-story offices housed a insurance company and an optician. The beginnings of the HP Chronicle matched the position of the HP 3000 in 1984. It was not the most significant tenant in the Hewlett-Packard building of products. It was never the biggest earner on the HP ledger. It was just the most social office of the HP structure. People built events and associations around it.

HP closed out its fiscal 1984 a couple months after I arrived in the offices of the Chronicle. We were so cautious that we didn't even include "HP" in the publication name at first, because we were not welcomed at that year's Interex user group conference. I heard about the argument on the show floor, where it was plain we'd started a publication to compete with the user group. They'd cashed the check, said the publisher John Wilson. They had to let us in. But seeing that resistance, nobody was going to make us change our name in that kind of environment. Leave the HP off the front page.

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 5.36.27 PMIt never occured to us to make a big story out of the annual HP numbers which were reported in mid-November. HP wasn't a sexy stock (trading in the mid $40s, with good profits) and its board of directors was full of technical expertise and HP management experience. John Young, the company's CEO on the August day I began, was not the chairman. That job was in the hands of one of the company founders, David Packard. His partner Bill Hewlett was vice-chairman. HP management moves didn't involve mergers or acquisitions as the splashy plays of today. The photo of the HP Touchscreen connected to a 3000 at left was one of just four in the annual report with a person in it. This was still a company that knew how to connect with customers, but struggled to sell its story about people.

There was a full range of things which the 1984 Hewlett-Packard was not. One of them was an adept player at being in a partnership. The Not Invented Here syndrome was in full throat on the day I arrived and looked at the PC 2622 box atop that PC monitor. Walker, Richer & Quinn was selling an alternative to HP's hardware. Within a few years HP would be launching a product to compete with WRQ, Advancelink. Because HP believed that every dollar, from supplies to support, had its best chance to help the company if it were on the HP ledger.

Computer-related sales made up the biggest share of the $6.1 billion that HP posted 30 years ago, but test and measurement systems were not far behind. $3.2 billion for computers, $2.2 billion for test gear. The latter was the best-known product for the company, as the Silicon Valley's hardware engineers were likely to have HP measurement products in their development labs. Test and Measurement was also more profitable than computers. Used in hospitals, medical labs, research facilities -- this was the business that started the company, and it was still the major driver in profitability, with strong sales.

Test and measurement was also completely outside my beat, thank goodness. But that didn't mean I only had the HP 3000 to learn. The Chronicle covered HP 1000 real-time systems and HP 9000 engineering computers, but mostly because our California competitors at Interex did so. The serious ad revenue came from the most social side of HP's $3.2 billion: business computers, charting the lives of companies and their employees. But even a chart off an HP business computer had a radical distinction from today. It used six pens to make its appearance.

I didn't have to write much about HP plotters, but they were a marvel to watch whenever we'd get one into our offices for a test run. The HP ThinkJet printers were less than a year old at HP at the time, and the LaserJet was announced in the same summer as the 3000's Office Computer. I didn't know it at the time -- maybe nobody outside of HP was aware -- but the year 1984 was the moment of watershed for HP's computing product futures. Printers which had graphics capability of a plotter and were faster than dot-matrix devices were the hottest product in offices other than PCs. In the years that followed, HP would hew ever harder to the course of ink-jet and LaserJet model: using commodity resellers and little in-person contact with customers.

We didn't run a column devoted to printers. We ran one on managing company staff, written by Dr. E.R. Simmons, who'd founded a fourth generation language firm called Protos. E.R. was also a psychologist. HP 3000 customers were often called analysts, meaning they had to understand the way people worked as well as how to code up a program. E.R. column was the easiest for everyone to understand. Including me.

Writing about HP's LaserJets that year would have had nothing to do with its big office computers, or even its engineering line. HP EasyChart ran off a 3000, yes, and it output to no devices but plotters that year. Same thing for the more advanced HP graphics apps, HP EasyDraw and DSG/3000. They all used data from IMAGE, but the LaserJet was too new to work with anything except Personal Computers at first. HP sold 10 million of these printers, which retailed for about $3,000 each, in 10 years time. The company had never created anything that sold so much, so quickly. But it never had a popular consumer product before, either.

The LaserJet, of course, had no conferences. No user group formed around it, and it only gained a Special Interest Group late in the '80s -- and even then, people wondered why. The HP 3000 had dozens of Regional User Group meetings, often with some kind of meal or multi-day agenda. I went to my first at the Florida RUG's December conference, feeling fully unprepared to talk in person about business computing without the aid of taped notes to decipher afterward. This was my first field work with the people who knew and loved MPE. They turned out to be some of the most generous and patient pros I'd interviewed in journalism. They knew they needed to explain a lot to me. They seemed to be eager to tell their stories.

But I came in at an odd moment for the 3000 community. Interex produced the biggest conference of the year, one named after the user group. In August of 1984 we were six months past HP's admission that its Vision architecture was going to be scrapped. Something named Spectrum was taking its place, but the next conference -- the best place to find and interview dozens of people in one place -- would not be held for another full year. I was used to in-person reporting and writing. Everything would need to happen over the phone. Fax wouldn't become popular for another year. Compuserve had nothing on it about HP products.

FLORUG, and then the Southern California SCRUG, would have to serve, to put me in front of experts and learn the personalities starting in December. We all read papers -- published in thick volumes after a conference -- or publications, or HP's technical bulletins, to learn about new tech and case studies and field reports. Computerworld was useful, but the HP 3000 drew scant notice in there.

HP's entire product line fought for space in any general computing interest newspaper. There were still several dozen makers of minicomputers and personal computers to write about. This specialization was the whole reason the Chronicle existed -- all HP news, on every page. Specialization was also the reason I got to enter the technical field. This was a community, and I'd shown success at community journalism in the three years before I went to work in that single-story set of rooms on Research Boulevard.

05:54 PM in History, Homesteading | Permalink

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Comments

Comments

Yet another typo...DR. Simmons started PROTOS, a company in Austin TX, not COGNOS which was in Canada. PROTOS was really not a 4GL, just a product that produced COBOL code.

Posted by: Paul Edwards | Aug 21, 2014 12:48:22 PM

Thanks for the catch, Paul. It was pretty late in the day on that article for me. Glad you're reading closely. Repaired...

Posted by: Ron Seybold | Aug 21, 2014 6:43:10 PM

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