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HP once had a system it would sing about

In the wake of the news that HP's newest computer has been marked down already (now $399 for a TouchPad), it's worth a moment's thought to remember that other nouveau HP systems had rocky starts against established competition. Like the HP 3000.

HP Songs 2 Paul Edwards, former board member of Interex and OpenMPE and an independent consultant since the 1980s, sent along a few songs that HP warbled about its business computer while that machine was still in its teens, less than half its current age. The songsheet at left, (detail if you click) and after the break, includes notes about New Wave, new technology that HP was pressing as hard as the WebOS operating system which drives that discounted TouchPad.

The HP 3000 weathered as rough a start in its launch during its first quarter 38 years ago. Not only was there severe discounting going on during fiscal 1973, HP was replacing the servers with 2116 units where they could, and pulling the computer back into the labs for better development. On that occasion HP's problem was not with the operating system -- MPE was called the "golden saddle on the back of a jackass." Big problems came from trying to fit the OS into a too-compact memory stack. There was entrenched competition a-plenty in those days, just like in today's tablet market where an established iPad is calling the tune to which the TouchPad must dance.

Nobody's going to try to replace a business server with a TouchPad, but that newest HP computer might have a chance of stepping in for a laptop in some high-mobile environments. It's going to be given a chance at least as long as your HP 3000. But unlike the HP3000, the TouchPad is not suffering from doubts from the boardroom, like the HP 3000 did upon its release. David Packard didn't want the company bearing his name to be in the general computer business.

HP Songs 1Wiser management prevailed in his company, eventually adding the IMAGE database to the 3000 bundle to give the server a leg up on competition like the DEC PDP-11 and IBM System/3. The initial name of the HP 3000 was the HP System/3000, something of a thousand-fold kick in the pants against a well-established Big Blue competitor. (This sort of stuff is the kind of lore you'll find easily in the halls of the Computer History Museum, where September's HP3000 Reunion is being hosted.)

By the late 1980s, when this songsheet was being crooned by volunteer customers at user group meetings, the greatest champion of that edgy IMAGE database was Orly Larson, who wrote and led the unaccompanied. An SQL interface had been added to IMAGE, so Edwards reports that "the HP song book that we, The Sequals, used all over the world to sing with Orly." Singing about the HP 3000 became something of a tradition, one that HP marketeer George Stachnik extended with a guitar and eventually a band at user group events. Larson led his choruses a capella, complete with ensemble kicks at the close of New Wave.

IBM had its company songbooks in the 1960s and 70s, the start of an era when computer managers identified personally with their systems. HP can hope for the same with its TouchPads, and need not be chagrined at a slow start or an immediate discount. It's possible that the greatest element of the TouchPad, like the earliest HP 3000s, is its OS -- even if the tablet's hardware makes far sweeter sounds than the braying of a jackass.