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HP shrank its base, so you grew experience

The Day Your Futures Did Not Die

Prather cease to be We haven't forgotten the anniversary of one of the worst decisions HP ever made for its computer customers. This week nine years ago Hewlett-Packard broke the news to customers that a few third parties had known, and some had feared, for awhile: The HP 3000 was not going forward in the vendor's business strategy for enterprises.

There are two tales told about how we all got pushed into the 10th year of the transition this month. One casts you as the rebels in retreat. The other shows a battlefield that HP vacated behind the smoke of strategic slogans.

Strategy usually concerns some act in the future, but HP's Winston Prather used strategy to defend HP's act by pointing to the past. Looking for a friendly forum that wouldn't ask prickly questions, the HP 3000 GM crowed in a user group publication "It was my decision" to kill HP's 3000 business, then blamed the customers for a lack of HP business to meet his employer's desires for the mission-critical server.

In this HP world from down the rabbit hole, a column in the Interex user group monthly HP World slung marketing spin to make HP's lack of 3000 sales something that the customers chose all by themselves. HP had no role, apparently, in releasing refreshed hardware nearly a year late. Or expecting its Unix blitzkreig to do anything but feed the sales ovens with 3000 sites waiting for long overdue tech parity with HP 9000s and Windows. Or pruning back division labs in the mid-90s so sharp that the GM's overboss, Glenn Osaka, told us in a NewsWire interview he couldn't really recommend that a big company adopt a 3000. Imagine how robust the lab funding was after he spread that 3000 edict.

E3000Robe Some in the HP 3000 group tried, with clever ideas, to keep the faith up in the customers it still could hold. Even though there was even an e3000 bathrobe giveaway to a lucky few, the year to come hasn't become the time to say goodnight to anything but HP regarding the 3000. HP's strategic support for the server was always extracted like a barber pulling a miner's tooth. The leaders all wished it were different, even if few could locate a genie's lamp to rub. GM Harry Sterling gave the best effort, even put his own career on the line to do things like buy an application company, OpenSkies, to win new 3000 business.

Others had far fewer ideas. "I wanted HP to be able to continue to enhance and support the HP e3000," Prather claimed in his headsman's note. "But in order to do that, HP needed more revenue than we were getting from the business. The HP e3000 had ceased to be strategic — not to HP, but to its customers."

Prather — or whoever was writing down this gem of jabberwock-speak — went on to pummel home this concept. HP's muffing of its sales goals somehow proved the system was not strategic to software partners, many of whom still pinned the 3000 in the center of their business plans on Nov. 14, 2001. A few of the clever ones got an HP sneak-whiff of this stink, but only by a month or less. Meanwhile, HP's unbaked loaf of logic got sliced and served out to companies.

Reaction Mixed Some students of corporation calculation saw the HP act as a matter of when, rather than if. But there certainly was no "Huge Customer Exodus Already Under Way" that November, even though HP World's Editorial Director Mike Elgan brayed it like a scientific conclusion. If there was an exodus, it was away from responsibility to the majority of customers who didn't give a frack if there were more applications eked out of the commercial market from HP. The in-house apps were running fine. HP was the company that needed those commercial apps, unable to sell 3000s with any other strategy.

See, there was this survey Interex conducted, went the tale explained in HP World. "Tellingly, about half of those surveyed said they were planning, or partially implemented, strategies for migrating their e3000 applications to other platforms." And that tale's insight flowed from just two people quoted as a source about the exodus. Yup, Prather, and HP's own George Stachnik, who "received fewer than 40 messages about the demise of the platform."

HP's retreat from reason got plenty of help from the user group publication during that stark winter. The pages of HP World brimmed with parroting of the vendor's tale, right alongside the no-stats-needed references to surveys. HP's solution specifics, a month after the pullout, were only sketched out to sell replacement Unix boxes at a discount. The hardware, sure, that was what HP World and its sponsor figured was the primary issue. Like telling a Bengal tiger you've got a great new ecosystem for him in Antarctica. MPE/iX and IMAGE were the true stripes of the 3000s that HP was now labeling non-strategic. Hardware dies often, but software lives forever at places like the City of Sparks, Nev. or Ametek.

Two months of Interex telling this fable produced not a single customer in its print pages, relating their story. Why bother? These poor minions must have already been well along on the adventure of managing change, and too busy to explain how well their 2001 plans had worked out for them. It certainly appeared they had already put their migration into full gear — although few tools existed to transfer databases, revise app code, replace surround utilities or anything else that a real customer knew to be strategic. These hoards of migrators were apparently carving their own magic wands, drawing from a wishing-well of experience.

Tomorrow: What happened to the tale of HP's shrinking 3000 sales effort, and why you had to grow up your experience to survive into 2011.