January 28, 2016
TBT: A Terminal Commemoration
Thirty years ago today I sat at a Columbia PC, reading the reports of the Challenger disaster on Compuserve. The news flashed over an amber display attached to the PC, an IBM wannabe that had another life for us at the HP Chronicle. That PC was our link to an HP 3000 in downtown Austin. A printer there managed our subscription database. The software that made it possible was PC2622. The product from Walker, Richer & Quinn was the first independent terminal emulator in the Hewlett-Packard market, a way to link to 3000s without purchasing a dedicated terminal.
The purple PC2622 box sat atop that amber monitor like it perched in many 3000 shops. HP's 2622 terminal was a staple in an installed base that was growing from 10,000 to 20,000 installed servers. The HP products were priced much higher than third-party terminals. There was independent hardware to mimic the HP engineering inside the 3000-only boxes. By 1986, however, PCs were in every office and companies needed desk space for the new tools and wanted to reduce costs with a single tube at each workstation.
HP was trying to promote a combo idea of its own in the era, the HP 150 PC. It was not compatible with much of the software of the day, but a Touchscreen 150 was automatically ready to be a console for MPE applications. In contrast, the Walker, Richer & Quinn PC2622 gave companies compatibility on both fronts: MS-DOS, and MPE. George Hubman was the point man for pushing the purple boxes into 3000 shops. An array of resellers around the world was making converts, too.
The late Doug Walker, founder of the company who recently died in a tragic accident, said the earliest days for PC2622 were entertaining in a "may you live in interesting times" setting. HP was not giving ground to the strategy that independent companies could deliver key software. Well, the management wasn't. But HP's field engineers, the SEs of the day, were big fans of terminal emulation, according to Walker.
"Version 1.1 of the product had an HP 3000 file transfer program," Walker said. "The problem was how to get the file transfer program onto the 3000 side."
We needed to be able to upload the file transfer program from the PC. We solved it by using the logic in the HP terminals for reading a tape. You could do a binary transfer of blocks of data using FCOPY, so we’d convince the terminal to upload our file to the HP 3000 from a tape.
In those days we had to figure out how to bootstrap the file transfer operation to get the program on the 3000. Because it certainly wasn’t the case that HP was going to distribute it for us.
HP didn’t really have a terminal emulator, and they weren’t too sure of their attitude about us jumping in and offering one. HP had their own PC back then, the HP 150, and the 150 had a file transfer program. So HP could distribute the HP 3000 portion of that program themselves. They took a not-necessarily friendly view of us doing this. They even offered to buy the company in 1985.
We asked Walker when he retired in 2005 if HP could have offered a price that would’ve made his company say yes. "Yes, but they weren’t anywhere near it. We said it would cost millions of dollars, but they wouldn’t even think in terms of six zeroes."
Terminal emulation was so profound a concept that Tymlabs, Minisoft, and host of other companies soon offered a way to make MS-DOS boxes become consoles and terminals. Eventually HP created AdvanceLink software of its own. The Touchscreen 150 now sits in basements and a few museums. The purple boxes and floppy disks are long gone, and the concept of a terminal itself is quaint. But it was a mighty linchpin to 3000 computing's rise out to the desktop.
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