May 19, 2017
Friday Fallback: The White House's 3000
There's a torrent of news coming out of the White House this week, but there's also a bit of history noted for 3000 users and fans. Out on the FedTech website, editor Phil Goldstein created some history and reported on some more with a story about the HP 3000 being the first computer ever to support the White House. It was 1978 when the 3000 began to aid White House efforts like tracking the desires of Congress.
A nonprofit organization that's been telling stories about the White House since 1961, the White House Historical Association says that Jimmy Carter's first minicomputer was "assembling databases, tracking correspondence, developing a press release system, and compiling issues and concerns of Congress." Goldstein developed a high-points article about those heady days of undercutting IBM mainframes and the swift rise of the 3000. In 1979, for example, the 3000 accounted for 15 percent of all data systems revenues at HP. It was $150 million in orders, up from $50 million in 1976.
The article has its problems with history. The timelines suffer from either a 1984-style rewrite, or rushed research. By the accounting of FedTech (a website run by vendor CDW) the 3000's operating system only lasted until 1997, the computers first surfaced in 1972, and HP began to develop it in 1968. Wrong, inaccurate, and misunderstood, those dates are. These things happen when a story's subject is Old Tech. Who'd care if the facts aren't accurate. The 3000's dead, right?
There's plenty to appreciate in the article. Appropriate links to resources like 579-page The HP Phenomenon, and the HP Computer Museum. There's a link to a book, Managing Multivendor Networks, that covers the 3000 and was written in 1997. Wait, that's supposed to be the same year as MPE was wrapping up, right? Geez, these details. The truth is that MPE is still working today, 20 years beyond the inaccurate sell-by date.
HP was only successful in selling some of the first working models in 1974 after buying back all the failed 1972 units. And the development begun in 1968 was to create the Omega Project. The System/3000 was a fall-back effort when Omega, a 32-bit revolutionary design, was killed by HP in 1971. The vendor's short-circuit of a game-changer started a history that ran right up to the 2001 pull-out notice from 3000 futures. That one killed the rewrite of MPE/iX for the Itanium IA-64 chips.
The HP Phenomenon has priceless accuracy and strong details about the 3000's roots, starting on page 159 with MPE—Rx for Business. Dave Packard's quote that "we're wasn't proud of the 3000" echoed the system's endgame at HP. It's a thankless task to stay current when the vendor relentlessly withholds funds for innovation. What is not noted in the history article is that the 3000 made HP a computer company with the biggest success it ever had by 1976. You read the HP Phenomenon to find that fact.
As is often the case, the coda written to FedTech's 3000 story is rushed to a total demise. The wrap-up misses the work that the system does today, asking instead, "Why Did The HP 3000 Die Off?" Reports of its total demise are Fake News, something on the mind of the current White House occupant.The report Goldstein offers tends to focus on the 1980s. The drastic transition from a Democratic President to Republican, from Carter to Reagan, is echoed in the White House's latest migration. A Series 33 was replaced by PCs during the Reagan era. (Oops, the 3000 artwork in the article showed a Series 70, a system not shipped until 1986.) The White House left such servers behind a few years before PA-RISC technology, a groundbreaker, revived them in the 3000 and HP 9000 lines.
Goldstein figured in his article that technology gaps killed the HP 3000. "The HP 3000, like many minicomputers of its era, was eventually supplanted by newer, faster and more capable machines, and by the widespread adoption of PCs in the late 1980s and early ’90s." Those elements did erase some opportunities. Hewlett-Packard played the biggest role in putting the 3000 to the sidelines, however, when the vendor's saleforce preferred Unix over MPE and then finally figured out how to sell PCs after stumbles like the HP Integra and the 3000's shadow terminal, the HP 150. HP really didn't know how to sell a 3000 for the first five years of the computer's life, either.
“President Ronald Reagan’s staff expanded the uses of computer office technology,” according to the Historical Association. Goldstein says the White House "soon adopted word processors with the advent of PCs in the 1980s." The Series 33 probably had HP Word, perhaps HP Deskmanager. A White House computer system is now a relic, no matter what system you choose.
Reagan had the Carter administration’s Xerox Alto removed from the Oval Office after he was elected, according to the Computer History Museum. No president since Carter has had a dedicated computer in the Oval Office, according to Slate. Looking to digital innovation, former President Barack Obama adopted "a fleet of computer-equipped staffers sitting directly outside his office doors," according to Slate. "President Bush sometimes used the computers of these personal aides to check news reports or sports scores. (He also had a personal computer at his Crawford ranch, which he used for limited personal surfing.)
The current White House is now operating under a new executive order which "could be tied back to budgeting for IT modernization, since agencies will need to decrease their security risk by investing in new technologies," said another FedTech report. IT directors like White House CIO Margie Graves have been told to update things to make them safer. The capital costs of that change, plus the operating expense of revising programs and training, would struggle to get past the DC cost-cutting of today. That's an example of history repeating itself.
There's one powerful link to the 3000's history in the FedTech article. Computerworld reviewed minicomputers from IBM (AS/400) and Data General against the 3000 in 1992. This was the year when HP shifted its allegiance to Unix for business customers. At the time the 3000 beat both IBM and DG servers. The shortcomings of the 3000 ran well beyond the tech HP didn't pay to improve. The vendor's sales intentions kept the 3000 from holding its term in offices.
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