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Sitting in the Reality Distortion Field

Why would anyone walk the streets of San Francisco before dawn to line up for a keynote speech? Across 21 years of conferences, from the old Interex shows to European HP meetings to the more recent HP Worlds and last fall's HP Technology Forum, keynotes were often my conference consolation prize. Dave Barry, Scott Adams, even Al Franken: those funnymen drew a great crowd at shows including the HP 3000.  But nobody would wait three hours in line to see them, like a Stones concert.

No, for rock star hubris and stock-splitting swagger at a computer show you must go to MacWorld in San Francisco. This week I make my pilgrimage for the first time in 19 years of using Macs. I sat in Steve Jobs' Reality Distortion Field, as the attendees called his hour-plus keynote. It was a personal way to experience what I've reported from the 3000 community over those 21 years: Customer passion for a product, like your devotion to the HP 3000. Even if you wouldn't get within a few desks of a Mac, your community has much in common with the heart of the Apple customer.

Some might call it blind faith, maybe misguided. But the true believer follows the less-traveled path, which yesterday unreeled from the front doors of the Moscone Center, snaked down Howard Street, wrapped around the corner and down Third, thousands lined up at 5:45 AM. Ten minutes later I spotted a 3000 expert on his way inside to register. Ever register for a  show at 6 AM? You might, if your vendor had withstood 15 years of being pronounced dead and kept releasing improved product, meanwhile fattening profits and showing the most imporant computing feature: leadership.

Withstanding popular trends, creating a true path for customers — this was once the style for Hewlett-Packard. The history of your 3000 platform began with an alternative to batch IT processing on mainframes. The rise of the minicomputer drew just as much scoffing as the Mac does from corporate DP experts, even from the very foundation of HP. But HP pressed on in spite of doubts from Dave Packard and your 3000 drew its first breath in the 70s. The same decade Apple started business. Yours was an upstart choice, just like Apple's in 1984 when it rolled out its first Mac.

It might be the audacity that sparks the devotion. In line I saw the same passion on faces and heard voices ring with the assurance I've heard from 3000 customers for a couple of decades. Only this time I was in line myself, taking notes and recording, but now a customer as much as a journalist. Moscone's hall where we sat, on the floor waiting to enter the Reality Distortion Field, has hosted several HP conferences. The hall was supposed to be the site of the 2005 HP World, the return of Interex to its best-attended show venue. But if your conference experience has been limited to HP shows, well, you can see broader horizons in a show of 20,000 kindred spirits.

A computer show can perform the sorcery of renewing belief. It's something you may have felt in a talk by Alfredo Rego at an HP conference, or seen in the eyes of GM Harry Sterling when he wore a tuxedo and made me remember the HP that stood up to common wisdom, to reach for Customer First thinking. Yesterday Steve Jobs wore black as well, his trademark turtleneck, and embraced something you consider essential to your careers: Intel processors. The Mac now ships with Intel inside, six months early, joining the mainstream while it protects what makes it unique: its operating environment.

Sound familiar? MPE/iX makes PA-RISC computing a unique value, too. The 3000 was never about chips, though they were important. HP never hawked them like Apple will put its Intel switch. Apple's ads, plastered on the kiosks up and down Howard Street, quip "What's an Intel chip doing inside a Mac? A lot more than it's ever done inside a PC."

No, that's not reality. It's a great marketing slogan backed up with technological promise. Or it's a  marketing promise backed up with great technology. Who does Apple believe in now? Intel, which had its CEO appear on the Macworld stage in a clean-room bunny suit, holding a chip platter, reporting that "Intel is ready, Steve." Jobs answered, "Apple is ready, too." And less than a year after Apple and Intel joined forces, Apple is shipping new systems with the fastest computing they've ever offered customers. I heard gasps and saw high-fives as the numbers — Specmarks, no less — got announced. Release something four times faster, early, and you'll get gasps.

I couldn't help but wonder why HP's alliance with the same chip vendor took six years to produce anything — and has drawn more clucking over missed deadlines than gasps. You have this in common with Apple's customers: both HP and Apple will rely on Intel to carry their flagship operating system forward. Itanium remains the only chip with a future to run HP-UX. Apple is using Intel's Core Duo processor, something not born in the system vendor's labs like HP dreamed up Itanium. But the new chip will run cooler and faster, with its dual core design, than anything Apple's used up to now.

HP's Dave Wilde referred to this kind of announcement as "customer delight" when HP would make them: Bringing something out that exceeds hopes with unexpected features. Yesterday I could feel the delight myself that you must have felt over the past two decades, from the introduction of the Mighty Mouse HP 3000 in 1984 — a mini that would run on office carpet, instead of a computer room floor — right down to the gasp in the room when HP's Dave Snow walked down the aisle at an IPROF conference with an A-Class system under his arm.

Have those days of delight disappeared for the 3000 customer? Perhaps not, if you're sticking with the vendor's 3000 alternatives. That other Intel chip, Itanium, can still make a splash in the years to come, if you're willing to wait on the delayed engineering. Waiting like that might be viewed as kooky as lining up before sunup to hear a keynote speech. But belief is an essential part of being a computer customer, an intrinsic part of the formula. We travel and stand on line to stoke our fires of belief. I can only hope that this year will deliver an HP 3000 conference, one that might offer a chance to line up in expectation like I did yesterday. It could provide a opportunity to see what leadership looks like.