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September 09, 2014

Remaining on Watch for HP Innovation

Apple WatchEarlier today Apple unveiled the descriptions and benefits of wearing a full functioning computer for the first time. Well, maybe not for the very first time. But for the first time in the modern era of computing, anyway. The Apple Watch defines the Tim Cook era at the company, and it will still need some tuning up through several generations. But this time around, the watch that breaks ground by riding on wrists won't need a stylus -- just an iPhone.

The instance of this is called the Apple Watch -- say goodbye to any new product lines being started with an "i" for now. A watch is not an enterprise computing tool, some will argue. But that was said about the iPhone, too -- a device that turned out to be a portable computer of breakthrough size. HP 3000 acolyte Wirt Atmar wrote a famous newsgroup post about the first iPhones, being like "beautiful cruise ships where the bathrooms don't work."

The Apple Watch, of course, won't be anywhere close to perfect on first release Early Next Year. People forget that the iPhone was a work in progress though most of its first year. That's a better track record than the HP 3000 had at first shipment, late in 1972. That system that's survived 40 years in a useful form -- 1974 marks the year when MPE and HP iron finally had an acceptible match -- got returned to HP in many instances.

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 4.55.43 PMThe elder members of our 3000 community will recall the HP-01, a wristwatch that wanted to be a calculator at the same time. Nobody had considered wearing a calculator, and nobody had asked for a wearable one, either. But HP felt compelled to innovate out of its calculator genius factory in Corvallis, Oregon, and so a short-lived product, designed to satisfy engineers, made its way into HP lore in 1977.


HP-01"All of the integrated circuits and three discrete components for the oscillator are combined in a hybrid circuit on a five-layer ceramic substrate," said the article in the HP Journal, the every other month paper publication where engineers read about innovations, and the more technical customer was steered to see how Hewlett-Packard could deploy superior design. The problem was that it was 1977, and the company was sailing too far afield from its customers' desires with the HP-01. 1977 was a year when HP had scrabbled to come up with a Series II of the HP3000, a device more important to anyone who wanted to leave IBM batch computing behind and get more interactive. People who bought calculators had no concept of mobile computing. Even a luggable computer was still six years away.

HP-01 closeupBut the HP-01 did accomplish one benefit for the HP customer, who even then was a consumer, of business products. It showed the company was ardent about the need to innovate. The HP Journal is long gone, and the heartbeat of the company feels like it runs through personal computers and miniaturization of internal parts that make more of a difference to manufacturing and product margins. Apple built an S1 processor that's "miniaturizing an entire computer system onto a single chip" to make the Apple Watch a reality, something like HP's five-layer hybrid circuit substrate of 1977.

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 5.35.45 PMApple's had its share of innovative flops, too -- but the most recent one was from 2001, the PowerMac G4 cube. A breakthrough like this S1 that Apple claims is an industry first. HP's innovations these days are not getting the kind of uptake that you'll see from the Watch next year. Nobody tells a story about computer promise like Apple, right down to calling parts of its team "horological experts," and saying it with a straight face. In contrast, HP's Moonshot and the like are important to very large customers, but the small business innovation has been limited to fan-cooling technology. Not sexy enough to earn its own video with a spacey soundtrack.

Why care? One reason might be that HP's working to convince the world, its customers, and its investors that innovation is still embedded in its DNA. It takes more than slapping the word "Invent" under the logo. Innovation is hailed by the markets, not the engineers who designed it. Everything is a consumer product by now, since we're consuming computing as if it were a wristwatch.

In the months before Steve Jobs died, he showered the HP Way and its products with praise while planning the future for Apple. He wanted Apple to leave a legacy in the industry the way that Hewlett-Packard had done, spinning off other companies and making their essential technology indispensible. Apple would do well to become what Hewlett-Packard was at its best.

Are more of those days out in HP's future? Is the ongoing turnaround a way to salvage the HP Unix and OpenVMS applications and enterprises that are going to left behind? Or are they going to become as obsolete as the HP-01, because any company needs to leave products behind? You can't set your watch to the moment when that question will be answered. Not even a device like Apple's, one that's haptic, made in gold as well as stainless steel, and lets you send an image of your beating heart to your loved one, cannot mind the time on that development.

05:55 PM in History, Newsmakers | Permalink

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Comments

Comments

They had their chances. Jornada was good when it came out. Then they had Palm.

There is no reason HP Labs is unable to invent, if they want to.

Jobs was the idea man, and maybe HP does not have as good idea people.

Or maybe HP wants to focus on business equipment, instead of expensive toys. They bought into Compaq and DEC technologies, and got Alpha.

HP RISC and Itanium were great.

Autonomy was a complete bust.

It appears they did not lose ability, but did lose focus.

It is sad. I hope they can turn it around.

Posted by: Tim | Sep 16, 2014 7:40:15 AM

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