If yesterday's news from HP about looking into a charge of racist software has you shaking your head, wondering what has shifted in the world of computing, a new book can help recall the glorious, gritty Hewlett-Packard. This thick tome also offers a way to understand how HP has changed, while the company continues its habits of learning from mistakes.
HP 3000 customers should enjoy The HP Phenomenon, the new book from Chuck House and Raymond Price. It's the first company history written by an executive insider. House was an HP employee and executive for 30 years at the company, including a long tenure as director of Corporate Engineering. At last year's HP 3000 Software Symposium in the Computer History Museum, House had some of the best stories about the earliest days of MPE applications and utilities, along with the angst and ardor that surrounded them.
In a show of old-school Hewlett-Packard tradition, House picked up the check for a table of 30 symposium attendees at the closing dinner. House is just as generous with research and stories in his book, written along with his co-author, who worked eight years at HP after completing his Stanford PhD with a dissertation about the HP.
The HP Phenomenon would make a great holiday gift to take back to the office after your break. At more than 500 pages of narrative and another hundred of back-matter, notes and indexes, it's a value to rival the 3000 itself. Some of the book's greatest value lies in a reminder that HP's good old days were not as good as remembered -- and the company stumbled its way through misjudgments en route to its top status of today.
The HP 3000 section runs up through the late 1980s and the launch of Spectrum-class servers, and the book gives a good account of HP's entry into the computer business and business computing. If there's one thing to quibble about in this exhaustive history and analysis, it's the spartan index of just 31 pages. A company that marked its 70-year anniversary after being founded by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard 70 years ago, HP deserves more than a half-page of index per year. Readers might wish for more organization in the book, but that might have eliminated some first-person insights into what the book calls "what we might learn from the successes and failures of this company/"
Serious HP 3000 coverage starts around page 190, giving the computer its rightful place in HP's rise above instruments and calculation businesses. House and Price write that in 1972, after HP took Hewlett's risk of creating the HP 35 calculator,
...another landmark product would debut, backed by Hewlett but disliked by Packard -- the HP System/3000, a computer that put HP irrevocably into a business arena that both men had studiously avoided for nearly a decade.
But The HP Phenomenon is much more than the most detailed history yet of HP's workings on the 3000. The book starts with Bill Hewlett's grandfather and runs all the way through the transformation of HP to a services giant in the past several years. House is unique in his qualification to write this book along with his parter. The introduction points out that he is the first HP veteran who's written a book and also holds the company's Medal of Defiance, "awarded in recognition of extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty."
House earned his award pushing a product essential to the 3000's success. Like the HP 3000, the HP terminals used with the minicomputer were reviled by Packard in the labs. House simply pushed them into production while Packard was away, and even found customers for the products on his own by carrying a terminal in House's VW Bug, site to site. It might surprise the 3000 community member to learn that terminals surpassed HP 3000 revenues by the late 1970s.
To know HP is to understand its path into the future, even as the company changes over and over again. Carly Fiorina gets her share of ink early, but the writers chronicle the same kind of monarchy presided over by Packard. HP had a history of issuing Gold Badges for its most veteran retirees, a name badge that admitted the veteran anywhere in HP's empire. Mark Hurd, the current CEO, eliminated Gold Badges not long after he took over. This history book surmises that Packard also would have eliminated a tradition like that with the briefest of announcements.
There are elements missing from the 3000's history in this book, such as the notorious delay of the Spectrum project 3000s (a year when the computer lost its lead in the hearts and minds of executives to the HP 9000, finally ready to serve businesses); or the details of how the System/3000 suffered from trying to carry the golden saddle of MPE on the back of a hardware mule; or the exile of the 3000 from HP's product line in 2001 (overshadowed in the book by the mounting battle over merging with Compaq).
But in spite of the absence of the greatest mistake HP ever made with an established computing product, this is an important book. From the extensive applause for computer business kingpin Paul Ely to the praises for 3000 division GM Ed McCracken (who married IMAGE to the 3000 to innovate HP's business solution), this is a treat and a treatise for the reader who considers HP an important part of their future and their legacy.