HP's history becomes a phenomenon
October 22, 2009
The company which created the HP 3000 is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. Perhaps it's the coincidence of a zero-numbered commemoration, but history that relates to the 3000 seems to be in the air this week. Most of it represents snapshots of an era we'll never return to, and some community members are thankful for the departure. But what's been left behind could be much more valuable than histories and manuals.
Today Forbes has an early review of the first book by a retired HP executive, Chuck House, who knew and worked with the HP 3000 business. The HP Phenomenon earned praise from a reviewer who's written his own HP book, George Anders. But the reviewer of Phenomenon wrote a more upbeat take on HP's changes than House's clear-eyed memories. Anders wrote the Carly Fiorina saga Perfect Enough, a kinder view of the changes that CEO inflicted on the HP which House remembers.
House still reveres the HP of the Sixties through the 1980s, just like the 3000 community venerates the MPE Software Pocket Guides of the 1970s and '80s. A current thread on the 3000 newsgroup has floated into memory lane about that era of the 3000. Like the guide itself -- and the HP computer management which House admires in his book -- the world has changed enough to make its best days appear to be behind it.
There's no doubt that the pocket guides are a token of the past. I was lucky to receive one that had been in the trenches, obviously well used and well-loved. Alfredo Rego passed on his MPE III guide once the OS started to move out of MPE V territory. But like the community members who now recall how vital a tool the book once was, Alfredo wrote a note in his guide's cover in 1987.
This little MPE III pocket guide is as valid today as it was in 1978. As a matter of fact, I used this guide today to change THE bit that made Adager run on the HP3000 Series 930.
As that summer of 1987 wrapped up, the Series 930 was the test-pilot aircraft of the overdue PA-RISC fleet. Only a handful were ever shipped, and HP replaced every one for free with the more capable Series 950.
By the time my MPE III guide was in heavy use, the community had another wizard, this one a wunderkind revered by veterans and novices alike. Eugene Volokh co-created the MPEX utility along with his dad Vladimir. House was on the scene at HP in those times. House was also part of the HP 3000 history seminar from last summer. Steve Cooper, who founded Allegro Consultants with Stan Sieler in that era, chronicled the Eugene legend in this video from the meeting.
The story includes a note from Sieler about the novelty of the concept of a super-MPE with wildcarding capability. One engineer in the 3000 group, Walt McCullough, engineered a similar concept. But HP wasn't focused in 1980 on incremental technology that could become so vital as MPEX, Sieler explains
House was working on his book during the summer of that seminar; the book is only available today through Stanford University Press, and the Amazon UK Web site. But there are excerpts from the book available through House's blog. In one blog entry, he takes a break from his memoirs of the Bill & Dave HP era to note how much change has occurred in the boardroom of the modern HP.
In an entry titled Whither HP Now? House explains why he believes HP has made a habit of under-investing in creating technology.
HP, after spending 9% of revenues for 60 years, almost like clockwork, cut that to 6% under [CEO] Lew Platt's regime, and from the midpoint of Carly's time until now, it has been reduced by a cool 0.5% per year, until now it is only 3% of revenues, one-half of IBM's investments in its future. To cut R&D by two-thirds, to rework HP Labs to the point of only pursuing work that the divisions will market or that universities will support (huh, say that again?), is to sell out the future. Period.
One might confidently predict that the constant wellspring of "renewal" -- so long the hallmark of HP -- is running dry. The acquisitions had better work.
There is an HP which still lives at many HP 3000-using companies: the vendor who will supply replacement systems and environments as migration targets. Two paths can be followed: one toward technology in which HP continues to invest, HP-UX. The other path is away from software innovation and toward standards, following Windows or Linux advances. An HP which couldn't imagine why they'd need a Pocket Guide for any product will exist in the future. But looking to the past won't clear the crystal ball to reveal when that "day of the dry well" arrives for HP. A customer who invests in HP's future needs to see smaller, more nimble tech companies continue to join and create the Hewlett-Packard phenomenon.
For the customer who's always wondered what the inside of the HP Garage looks like, the workplace of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard is on display over the Web. A video tour, led by HP archivist Anna Mancini, is online -- so you can see the head of that wellspring. At what the industry calls the Birthplace of Silicon valley, the garage restored by HP shows the era of HP's phenomenon when R&D was all the company could offer.