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June 26, 2015

What Has Made MPE/iX 8.0 A No-Go

Scrubbed LiftoffThe life of homesteading 3000 managers is not as busy as those who are managing migrated or just-moved business environments. But one topic the homesteaders can busy themselves with is the If-Then structure of making an 8.0 version of their operating system more than a fond wish. Our reader and 3000 manager Tim O'Neill visited this what-if-then module, a proposition was sparked by an April Fool's story we wrote this year. "I actually believed that article, until I recognized the spoofed name of Jeanette Nutsford," he said. We were having some Onion-like sport with the concept of an MPE/iX.

I had the thought that maybe somebody somewhere will apply all the MPE patches written since 7.5, add a couple more enhancements to subsystems (like maybe MPE users could see and use a Windows-managed printer,) test it in-house, then test it on a few customer systems, then release it and announce MPE/iX 8.0. The database options could begin with TurboImage and Eloquence.

That's pretty much the start of a workflow for an 8.0. If you were to make a list of the things that have stood in the way of such a watershed moment for MPE, it might look like an if-then tree. A tree that might lead to a public MPE, as free as Linux or HP's Grommet, the company's user-experience development application. Grommet will become open source, licensed for open use in creating apps' user experience. Grommet was once just as HP-proprietary as MPE.

The tree's not impossible to climb. Some of the tallest branches would sway in the wind of software law. The rights regarding intellectual property have blocked this climb to open-sourced MPE/iX. That's law that was tested outside of the HP and 3000 community. It came close to swaying in favor of customers who believe they're buying software, instead of just renting it.

No software creator would call the act of licensing its product a rental. But ownership rights of code like MPE or the CAD program Autodesk have always reverted to their creators. These programs were developed inside software labs controlled by HP and Autodesk. Such creators' ownership was not in doubt, until in 2007 the right to restrict any software's climb to freedom was tested.

Autodesk was sued that year by Timothy Vernor, who said he was entitled to sell used copies of AutoCAD he'd bought at an office liquidation sale from an Autodesk customer. The suit wasn't foolhardy. In 2008 a federal district judge in Washington state denied Autodesk's motion to dismiss. The next year, both sides filed motions for summary judgment, to settle whether a structure called First-Sale Doctrine could apply to previously licensed software. And then that district ruled in Vernor's favor. Transfer of software to the purchaser materially resembled a sale, not just a licensing. The software had a one-time price, and a right to perpetual possession. You could resell your software, and so it could have a value in the market beyond what its creator had received.

What's all this got to do with 8.0? The concept, and defending the ruling, represents a type of the most critical if-then branch in the tree of used-software logic. By now, every copy of MPE/iX is used software. To make an 8.0 with any value to the companies and consultants who'd labor through new patch integration, plus two levels of testing, and managing support, it'd need to be worth some revenue to those who'd do the work. You'd need a law to make reselling a revamped MPE/iX as the 8.0 version legal. 

Linux and the rest of the open source world enjoy this kind of ownership law. It helped that Linux never belonged to a company as a trade-secret product.

The Washington state court decided selling Autodesk could let a customer resell under the first-sale doctrine. So Autodesk could not pursue an action for copyright infringement against Vernor, who sought to resell used versions of its software on eBay. But like any software creator, that first-sale decision was appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where the lower court's ruling got reversed. Vernor was denied the right to resale Autodesk software on eBay. There were non-transferable licensing restrictions, and in 2011, the US Supreme Court let stand the Ninth Circuit ruling.

This is the quest for the holy grail of MPE futures that OpenMPE pursued for more than eight years. At some point, the group believed, control of MPE/iX could be released to the companies using the software. It should be, they argued, since HP was halting its business in the HP 3000 and MPE. Vernor didn't even offer to modify the CAD software, to improve it like O'Neill suggested. The appearance of such an MPE 8.0 would deliver new functionality, fix bugs — and most importantly, lavish some interest on the OS.

HP used to talk about an 8.0, in passing at user conferences in product futures talks. There was nothing as specific as "MPE users will be able to see and use a Windows-managed printer" during these talks. Applying existing patches and recent ones, then releasing it as an 8.0, is a stretch. The x.0 releases of MPE/iX each brought on a major set of advances, not just printer control and patch integration. 7.0 delivered support for a new hardware bus, PCI, for example.

All those patches written since 7.5 PowerPatch 5? That'd be just the beta-test patches that never went into customer-testing for General Release. HP holds the intellectual property rights to those patches. The company would have to cut that work loose into the customer base. (If HP cedes ownership rights, then integration begins.) If HP pemits this 8.0 MPE/iX to be tested in customer sites, then something stable enough to be adopted would emerge.

If no such ownership change occurred, then even an 8.0 would still belong to HP — a company with no more interest in selling or support it.

The rights to MPE/iX have been stretched recently. While a two-user version of the Charon HPA emulator was available for download, the Stromasys software was distributed with MPE/iX as part of that freeware version.

Since there's no open-sourced MPE for offer, the testing and integration, then pairing the revived software with its database as well as Eloquence (never built for MPE, but could be integrated) — it's all simply a fine ideal. Nobody was able to step forward and push this concept into a test of law. Wirt Atmar of AICS Research checked with lawyers about reclaiming MPE off of HP's discard pile. It was a card the community could not play. 8.0 is a dream, and while there's no reason yet to cast it away forever, plenty of 3000 owners have experienced their wake-up call.

10:20 AM in History, Homesteading | Permalink

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