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April 02, 2010

Popularity, Predictions, and Redemption

I just got done preaching how popularity works in the ad business to a couple of HP 3000 community members. I did my lecturing on Facebook, so not even 150 people have a chance to see the lesson. But the insights are important today to 3000 owners, migrating customers, and the people who make a living helping either group.

In a distant past we started the 3000 NewsWire when the computer was at one of its multiple low-water marks, like an IMAGE database. One expert told us we'd be so unpopular nobody would even pay $10 a year to read it. Another suggested free would be an apt price. A third was baffled about what could go into a second issue, after we produced the first. See, the 3000 was as unpopular a computer to HP as it made at that time, unless you counted the HP 1000. (The 1000 could be no more popular than the people who knew it existed, which was a lot less than its customer base. The 1000 was stealth, embedded, in thousands of sites and products. It never stood a chance of national acclaim.)

National acclaim, and the lack of it, sparked my blustery writing on Facebook. Being somebody who pays the mortgage with advertising revenue from beloved and devoted sponsors, I was interested in a news story about Glenn Beck and Apple participating in a boycott of Beck's network family. I've been in publishing so long that I started in a country weekly that went out of business 90 days after I got my first job. Ad revenues couldn't keep pace with costs. It was a hell of a lesson, fresh out of a 1981 journalism degree, to learn about popularity. What you have to report matters, yes. But how much it matters to buyers, and buyers of sponsorship, matters so very much more.

Anytimehp Everyone who creates something seeks compensation: a contract, a paycheck, a patron to pay the bills. HP has always pursued compensation to the point of Profit. People forget that the HP Way includes one of the industry's first employee profit-sharing plans. You need to succeed in a significant way, with major clients, to have enough profits to share with 30,000 employees. You need to throw a lot up on the wall and seek what sticks, which led to the stress-ball giveaway above from HP. This is where popularity comes into your life: how the lack of it through HP's actions made the computer a cast-off to the company, and how the migration alternatives should be ranked to ensure there's success enough to be shared for customers which remain.

BEING POPULAR is important to attract the business you can't see yet. There's a buzz factor about some human activity that we respond to instinctively. In your community -- the IT sector and computer technology -- it's the new design and novel market attraction that generate buzz. So much of the buzz looks unwarranted in a short while that we wonder why we ever react to it. The cynics and hard-nosed, the slide-rulers and spreadsheeters, they don't react much. They use numbers and statistics to show why something built but not proven, or carrying a long track record of mediocrity, should not be popular.

They spend a lot of time in frustration watching mass consumption determine what survives. One kind of TV watcher wonders why Survivor has survived. Another wonders what in the world Mad Men is all about, or where the heck somebody can even see it. The former is popular enough to celebrate its 11th season this year. The latter, which has won three Emmys, is watched by fewer people than Glenn Beck. A lot fewer.

The HP 3000, which was built soundly enough to run companies over decades with only the barest of care, never reached a total of 100,000 machines built and sold. Windows servers now sell that many units in less than two weeks, even though the care and feeding of them has sparked a massive enterprise of training, troubleshooting and replacement.

Quality cannot endure unless it can harness popularity, or survives on a bountiful niche. That is why numbers matter, and large sources of either support monies, sponsorship, or advertising determine the lifespan and growth of anything: Glenn Beck, the iPad, or other polarizing things. Like whether a vendor-created OS like MPE/iX had enough community left to support a newsletter, or keep software and hardware companies creating and caring for its future through 2010 and beyond.

On Beck and that boycott I won't take sides on the content of his program, except for this point: It seems to be driving away large advertisers, a development that is serious. HP said the same thing about the 3000 to Abby and I less than a year after we launched the NewsWire. Glenn Osaka, who was the GM of both the 9000 and 3000 groups at the time, said the big companies would never rally or stay loyal to the 3000. Without that kind of big-group popularity, he added, HP wouldn't keep the system around very long.

Osaka turned out to be wrong, and right, and then sort of wrong again. The large companies did not flee the 3000. He turned out to right only when HP cut the system off at its knees, and then, only the large companies began to leave. They had little choice and made decisions that were right for them. although costly at the time. HP had spent most of the time since the mid 90s saying a customer could go anywhere and HP would be okay with that move. But going to the 3000, without its popularity -- that was never going to happen by way of Hewlett-Packard advice, once HP understood popularity was the key to mass markets in the 21st Century.

Where Osaka turned out to be kind of wrong was in thinking all 3000 customers would exit following the big ones. Smaller sites still found value in the system, but the economic tide has been only seeping since HP told everyone to get out of the pond. Apple doesn't want to be part of anything that Fox broadcasts, apparently because of Beck. Tomorrow the computer maker launches a product derided and glorified all at once by thousands of experts, even though no more than 200 people not employed by Apple have ever used it. Predictions abound.

Apple is counting on popularity, just like Windows and Linux providers are riding a wave of mass consumption. A quarter-million iPads will be switched on by Monday and the buzz will begin. It may not be a torrent of success at first, but Apple believes and will spend billions to be right. That will be a commitment to watch and record for history, because no computer maker has ever put as much weight in dollars behind a product. Not even Microsoft launching Windows 95, and paying a fellow to rappel down the CN Tower in Toronto while the Rolling Stones "Start It Up" roared in the background. And you know that song wasn't cheap.

People predicted the NewsWire to be a bust before it got printed, predicted the 3000 would be dead before 2006, predicted Apple would be so worthless that it ought to be sold off and repay the shareholders. They predicted the iPad would turn no heads, being just another, bigger version of another product. People also predicted the Itanium/Merced/Tahoe chip from Intel and HP would rule the world of computing, that Windows would be ascendent throughout our lifetimes, that computer networks would always be owned by companies with their access controlled by attached wires.

Predictions are fun, but they are always about the future, and "always in motion is the future," said Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. You can be pretty sure of a lengthy ride on a popular platform, but it takes real guts to make a stand and push back against a tide. Apple did and became the third-largest valued company in the world this week by market cap. We've outlasted HP Omni, HP Professional, Interact magazine, Open Systems Today, and a few more that once told stories about the 3000. You could have gotten 2:1 odds from some that the 3000 would never boot up in a business beyond 2010 -- back in 2003.

So now comes the redemption after all the grave-digging for Apple. Abby and I used its products to create publications since 1987 for publishing companies including our own, and we heard the derision and exclusion and snorts of the kind you 3000 owners must have heard from Windows, Unix, even IBM users. Perplexed about how there could be more than One True Way to Compute. After a decade, I counseled an inclusive approach, with room for everybody's choice. This is what made telling the 3000's story such a natural act. We knew the facts didn't match the predictions of an everlasting demise.

No mistake -- companies who migrate do enjoy new attempts and solutions that the 3000 world will have to view from afar. Popularity generates the buzz of 100,000 apps on the iPhone, or hundreds of millions of PCs shipped with Microsoft environments which keep improving. Critical mass matters if you need the new to stay ahead. Tomorrow there's a new platform launching for information delivery that's likely to sell a few million units before Christmas, if Apple's prayers are answered. It will deliver a kind of redemption when Apple becomes an overdog for the first time, rather than an underdog. You can take comfort in knowing that both positions are available to you as a 3000 owner. HP still lets you choose your truth, just like in the old days when it offered more than it knew how to sell.

Beck will remain on the air for now, Apple will push the iPads -- and some of you will rely on your 3000 more than 15 years after that other Glenn's prediction, the one that we heard in the 90s. We all desire redemption, an outcome that often requires faith. Believing in the can, however -- rather than the can't -- is the heart of creation: a human's most blessed act.

05:13 PM in Homesteading, Migration, Newsmakers | Permalink

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