Rising Sun, setting Unix: HP's next migration unfolds in secret slides, emails
A 3000 plucked barren of IMAGE never flew

HP runs ahead and behind, then and now

The iconic entity called Interex emerged this month 28 years ago. HP had announced it would catch up to 32-bit computing with Spectrum. And the vendor whose sales still didn't exceed $7 billion said in 1984 that touchscreens were the most intuitive interface. Being ahead and behind all at once is a sign that you're still developing, making leadership while you catch up your customers

RandomAccessInteract84Hewlett-Packard used the 1980s in your community to push out new ideas. Touch-based personal computing hit the market in the HP 150, one of the Series 100 PCs that transformed the International Association of Hewlett-Packard Computer Users. Before HP cast its seeds of PC innovation, Interex didn't exist. In a May column from executive director Bill Crow in InterACT magazine, the user group renamed itself "to define the association's independence" from HP.

Although that user group has been in the grave more than six years, its members' insights haven't evaporated. An era of ink on paper (click above for detail) has preserved milestones like HP running more than 25 years ahead of the industry with touchscreens. It's easy to forget your community was reaching for a breakthrough office experience even while it was dragging along chips devised a decade earlier.

Ed McCracken, a GM of HP's Business Development Group, announced in early '84 the seven basic principles guiding HP's "office automation strategy:

1. The workstation is the most important component, followed by the distributed data processing system (DDS)
2. All workstations will be personal computers
3. The touchscreen is the most intuitive interface
4. Workstations will not tie directly to mainframes but to an intermediate DDS
5. A pragmatic approach to open architecture is required
6. High quality is essential
7. There must be an intuitive integration linking managers' workstations, secretarial workstations, and the other components of the system.

Number 3 is the most striking of the guides offered by McCracken, the man who drove the genius of bundling the rising DDS of the 3000 with a crack database. But in '84 HP was already considering IMAGE a database that needed a successor. The vendor was following in IBM's wake, right down to a new partnership with a small company built by an IBM ex-pat. Interex also recognized that Alfredo Rego -- "the man behind Adager" -- was on par HP's CEO, John Young. Both gave 1984 user conference speeches, but Rego recognized that IMAGE was to remain the force behind the 3000's success.

It wasn't going to come through a new processor family -- although the Spectrum project's 32 bits were critically overdue. Like today, software mattered more than hardware like Itanium. Oracle's database, built upon the same IBM roots, will determine the fate of the last remaining OS that HP ever built with its own R&D. Databases are lynchpins.

HP saw as much when it partnered with Esvel Inc. The firm founded by Kapali Eswaran, one of the founding members of the IBM System R relational DB product, would develop "scalable database architecture for HP." The next product turned out to be Allbase, but HP already wanted a common database among its real-time, scientific (HP-UX) and office systems.

Like then, the vendor's reaching for some commonality with its Itanium futures. Last year Intel was announcing new underwear for the chip the industry forgot, promising that Xeon architecture would share base elements with Itanium. HP wants to have it both ways -- a market in a the commodity space along with the power of software built on proprietary hardware. You've still got that kind of power in your MPE-IMAGE world. Because Oracle's got HP by the scruff of its enterprise neck, the software still calls the plays. But now HP doesn't control the database -- to the point of seeing customers define themselves as Oracle shops. Oracle's not leaving HP computing. It's departing the computing most profitable to HP.

Esvel was the first step that HP took toward embracing an industry standard for its enterprise business. Back in 1984 the little company had already delivered the seeds of DB2 to IBM. HP was chasing Big Blue in every field but instruments back then. The vendor which created the HP 3000 believed in a pragmatic approach to open architecture: standards were less important than reliable value. In less than seven years HP didn't believe that anymore, driving the Open Enterprise with open systems.

Allbase earned a few footholds in the Open Enterprise, but IMAGE ruled the 3000's roost. Just like Oracle does today, HP's database had become the common coin of computers for HP business. You couldn't switch over billions of records without a lot of magic in 1984. Hewlett-Packard had the right idea about touch interfaces, but the wrong technology and message. This May the message is in the hands of the software providers, not the hardware makers. HP used have R&D enough to be both, which is what still makes the 3000 value durable beyond all accepted wisdom.