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October 29, 2015

Promises, and a Revolt, from 25 Years Ago

Bride and GroomA quarter-century sounds like a long time. In the computer business it's an age, as in ages ago. In marriage it's a milestone, too. In 1990 I took my wife Abby's hand in marriage, a vow we just renewed in our backyard last month with balloons and acres of cake. In that same fall, HP was making promises for the 3000 about the way it wouldn't sell the server — as well as the equality it figured it could give it with Unix servers.

A front-page story in the HP Chronicle called the Boston Interex meeting of that year when we were married "four days that have and will shake our future." Guy Smith wrote for the paper that I edited

At the heart of most of these worries was the fate of Image, and whether HP might re-bundle it with all 3000s. The Image fervor peaked during the rebirth of the SIG-Image on the first evening of the conference. Image co-creator Fred White suggested that users could "sue HP for a couple of million bucks for possible breach of contract." De-bundling led many at the meeting to believe that the venerated network database may be heading for the software scrapyard.

Computerworld Boston Tea PartyIt was an ugly fight that spilled onto the agenda of the HP Management Roundtable, a battle played out in front of the national tech press assembled for the year's biggest HP show. In an editorial, I promised that fights were going to be a vital part of any relationship — even the one I'd just begun with my bride. The reasons for fighting had to be more than proving you're right, though.

As you read this," I wrote, "I will be starting a new life as a husband to a wonderful woman — someone I believe in and trust with a commitment as strong as any I've seen in the heat of battles between HP and its customers. My bride and I will fight. But we'll do so to solve problems, not to win. After all, we don't want to lose each other in the pursuit of a total victory. The HP-Customer couple should be aware of such a loss, too."

A programmer or development company could create an application or software for the 3000 community using IMAGE as the database, knowing that every 3000 out there would be able to make use of the creation. 3000=IMAGE was a formula being broken by 1990. SIG-IMAGE, a Special Interest Group of users gone dormant at the time, re-formed to organized the complaints and demand remedies.

Smith's report on the battle in the roundtable included White's questions to HP executives about the IMAGE unbundling -- prefaced with a compliment to put one of them off balance

Before bluntly asking the assembled panel whether they lied when saying Image was part of the Fundamental Operating System, or lied when they unbundled it, White offered one compliment. "I like your tie," he told one HP manager. "If I wore one, it would look just like that."

SIG-Image Chairman Steve Cooper said that "for five years SIG-Image has had a prioritized list of enhancements with 20 items, starting with updates of critical database items. To date only one request has been included in TurboImage." At the roundtable, better known as the HP Lynching, HP's David Sanders reacted to a proposal that users would create a a technical task force for Image. "We will move ahead and implement Critical Item Updates," he said.

IMAGE had languished for years before Boston, a seminal strand of the 3000's DNA that the vendor was disregarding. In HP's thinking of 25 years ago, getting MPE and Unix looking and working alike would to resolve flagging sales of a new PA-RISC line of servers. The databases were not distinctions. "Within the limits of the industry standards," said HP's Wim Roelandts, VP of the Computer Systems Group, "MPE and Unix should become identical by a year and a half from now." 

It was a proposal as silly as saying my bride and I would use our razors in the same spots. Her legs are smooth. My cheeks are clean. And MPE and Unix were never going to provide the same openness. That's what led to HP's mistake about separating IMAGE and MPE. No Oracle or Sybase was ever going to work as well on a 3000 as they would on an HP 9000.

Renewal WalkWe've outlasted HP's marriage to MPE, Abby and I, and one special afternoon this fall was full of laughter and tears about the devotion that's survived. In spite of the customers' obvious devotion, by that 1990 show HP felt heat aside from the indian summer swelter of New England. Vendors and customers rose up to lash HP in a public forum, complaining bitterly in front of a host of reporters from national IT weeklies like Computerworld and InformationWeek.

HP lost face at the meeting while its top enterprise management tried to defend the business re-arrangement. IMAGE remained an included part of the 3000. A bonus from this Tea Party was extra investment in the SQL interface for IMAGE. The database eventually went from being called TurboIMAGE to IMAGE/SQL over the next two years.

HP 3000 General Manager Harry Sterling said a new Customer First program flowed from that protest. Referring to the low point of HP-customer relations at the Interex conference in Boston, he said listening changed the future.

“The management team had to really change the way we think about what we were responsible for. There's a cartoon of a tightrope walker who sees a fire climbing up the pedestal, and he's hesitant to go out. That's what it was like for us. In Boston [in 1990], the customers set fire to our pedestal and we had to move.”

“For the CSY engineering community in particular, it was very hard. In our culture, that [customer communication] was somebody else's job. We had compartmentalized the whole value chain, and tossed it over the fence to the next person who was responsible. When our customers said “The whole sales model has changed, we're not happy with what's going on, you're not hearing our needs,” our immediate reaction was, “The field has screwed this up. They've got to fix it. Or marketing has the problem.” We had to change philosophically, and realize we're responsible for all of it, whatever it takes. If there's something wrong in the value delivery system, it's our responsibility to fix it.”

Fights can lead to fixing problems. The problem of having a fuzzy focus on the vendor's business seemed to get fixed with the ultimate fight in 2001, when HP trimmed its enterprise plans of 3000 future. Now there's a new day coming on Monday, when enterprise computing will be restored to its rightful focus at Hewlett-Packard. We'll have a look at the new days of the vendor tomorrow, its last business day before its split.

09:33 PM in History | Permalink

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