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August 18, 2014

This Is Where I Came In

It's the third week of August, but it's 30 years ago. I wear my wide tie and my oxfords to an office in Austin's northwest tech territory and start to write and learn about the HP 3000. I'm 27, father of a boy not yet two, a community news reporter with a new community to creep into -- because that's how it's done when you don't know anyone or much of anything. You ask a lot of questions and try to understand the answers.

Ronin1980sThe office is ribbed with wood paneling and mini-blinds and sports an IBM-PC knockoff, a Columbia. It's got an amber display and no hard drive. A box with the manual for Walker, Richer & Quinn's PC2622 software is on top of that monitor. It's connected for something called time-sharing, and it also connects to something called Compuserve. I watch my boss dial up on a phone with a modem -- I knew about those from using an Apple II at home -- and read the news. None of it's about HP, though. That's our story to tell.

Inside my editor's office there's a telephone transcription machine for recorded interviews, plus a Kaypro II portable. It weighs 28 pounds and has a screen that's nine inches across.  Kaypro_II_portable_computer_with_dBase_II_and_CPM_2013-04-04_00-57Imagine two Samsung Galaxy phones side by side, and that's about it. There are two books on the shelf, both printed by Hewlett-Packard. One is a catalog of third-party software and specialized hardware, all written in something called MPE V for a computer people are wild about, the HP 3000. The other book is a listing of the phone number of everyone in HP's Bay Area campuses. HP is not yet selling $7 billion of gear, support or software in 1984 -- and that includes medical and measurement systems that are so much better known than its computer products.

In my first week of a career writing about HP, one of the first things that I learn is that we've been scooped. The latest HP 3000, a real ground-breaker, is already in the pages of Interact magazine. The user group Interex has won again, because being physically near those HP Bay Area offices makes a difference. There's nobody on our staff or theirs who wrote news for newspapers, though, not until this week. It's the only chance we've got to learn something first: Get on that phone, son.

Thirty years ago the market that became the community I called home had a minicomputer product being sold in a mainframe mindset. HP sold office computers for interactive computing, just like DEC, Wang, Control Data, Honeywell, Burroughs, Univac, Datapoint, and yeah, some company called IBM. I'd heard of IBM. I knew nothing about the rest of the BUNCH, and I thought they were kidding about a company called Wang. (In the years to come, our publishing company created an unfortunately-named tabloid called Wang in the News.)

Mighty MouseWe got scooped on the release of the Series 37, which HP called the Office Computer because it was the first minicomputer it sold that didn't need special cooling or a raised floor. It operated on carpet, and that was a big deal for something people called the Mighty Mouse. It had the the first 3000 on a chip; a CMOS gate array; could have as much as 8 MB of memory and the same performance as a Series III, according to Stan Sieler's genealogy of that era. The Series III cost four times as much. That 8 MB is smaller than some of the individual podcast files I created 25 years later.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, like I usually do. I came into that office with 24 credit hours of computer science and a passion for the field. I was an enthusiast, as they used to call people who like computers for the concept of what they'd do, not just what they could help you learn. I only had a journalism degree to hang up on my paneled office wall. Plus that telephone and a notepad and a recorder. I needed the recorder, because I was drinking out of a fire hose of information for the first six months of these 30 years.

People were at the heart of the work, though. Not just the machines, but creative people with personality and a penchant for gathering and being social. These were business computing analysts, and the best way for them to share what they knew and learn was to read and meet in person. They held meetings at least once a month around the world. They were generous with what they knew. It seemed lots of them wanted to teach.

These days there are Throwback Thursdays online in social media like Facebook. Us baby boomers share pictures of our younger days. But I'm going to take more than just this coming Thursday to throw you back into 1984 and the place where I came in, looking for a way to tell stories that 3000 people would hear for the first time. Being first was important. But I'd soon learn that being accurate was even more important, more essential to my readers and my new community than being accurate when someone was on trial, or critically injured, or breaking a record or hearts on a sporting field. It certainly felt that way to the people who shared their stories with me. It also felt that way to me, the first time I messed up in public as I came in, then got schooled in person about how inaccurate my editing was in 1984.

10:44 PM in History, Homesteading, Newsmakers | Permalink

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