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First 3000 steps: chasing HP's Mighty Mouse

MightyMouseCoverTwenty eight years ago today I took my first steps into the world of Hewlett-Packard. I stepped from the workdays of a small town newspaper editor to the monthly quest for news of bits, segments, and mice. When I walked into the Austin office of Wilson Publications, creators of The Chronicle (we didn't dare to use "HP" in the title) I found wood-paneled walls around a desk with no terminal, no keyboard, and no clue about a new HP 3000 coiled and ready to change the system's reach.

The new Series 37 Mighty Mouse was revealed to me and managing editor John Hastings about two weeks after I'd assumed the reporting and writing for that monthly tabloid, just eight issues old at the time. We opened the mail on September 13 to learn of a minicomputer covered by our arch-rival, the Interex user group's InterACT magazine. We'd never seen a Mighty Mouse, and neither had InterACT's Sharon Fisher. But InterACT got a pre-briefing on the first business computer HP ever built that needed no computer room or operators.

Being scooped in your first issue is a humbling way to start a news job. But as a dewy lad of 27, I chalked it up to the lack of newsroom practices at Wilson and began to lift my wings onto the radar of Hewlett-Packard. HP was a company so small at the time that its total quarterly sales were less than today's profits from 2012's last quarter. The $6.4 billion company had a total of five US PR contacts to cover every product in the lineup. It also had several thousand products and more software than it knew how to nurture and improve. But that Mighty Mouse was a shot across the bow of the fleet of personal computers already riding the waves of change. HP said the Series 37, priced at under $20,000 in bare bones, was an alternative to what we called microcomputers.

It can operate in a normal office environment. It looks like a two drawer filing cabinet sitting beside a desk. No air conditioning, special temperature control, or unusual electrical requirements are needed. It can be placed in carpeted rooms. Moreover, it's very quiet; HP claims it makes even less noise than a typewriter.

Longs Drug, I learned by reading my competition, was going to install more than 150 of these Mighty Mice among its hundreds of stores in the Western US. At that time a microcomputer was strictly a device for personal computing, rarely networked with anything. HP wanted businesses to purchase HPWORD, running on the 3000 for office automation, and HP DeskManager for the 3000 to tie workers together with internal mail and document exchange. Thousands of dollars worth of software, piled on top of that $20 grand.

Just outside the door of my paneled office in Texas, we ran a Columbia PC with a 300-baud modem and WordStar, plus PC 2622 software to make that micro behave like an HP terminal. We dialed up to timeshare with a 3000 at Futura Press, where our stories were set and then delivered back to us in galleys which we waxed up and pasted for tabloid layout. It would be another year before we'd even get Compuserve to link us to the rest of the computing world.

Like a lot of businesses, Wilson and The Chronicle relied more on the steel filing cabinets the Mighty Mouse mimicked in size. We had phones and transcription machines, though, and I had the fortune to mess up editing a story which brought me closer to a preeminent community creator. Mistakes, hubris and getting bested will make a perfectionist spend longer hours trying to learn to avoid subsequent embarrassments.

Hewlett-Packard didn't think much of any other environment for its business computing on that August afternoon. Its HP 1000 RTE environment was focused on real-time controller computing. Its HP 9000 Unix servers were workstations serving scientific and research customers, mostly, plus the labs connected to the major manufacturers running HP 3000s. But The Chronicle had me covering it all, from RTE so buried that some customers didn't even know they had one embedded in their systems, to the HP 9000 still running a Unix OS that writers of the day were calling an experiment which needed standards to become significant.

The HP 3000 community was the one I could call upon, literally. I didn't know enough about what we'd call enterprise computer systems to contribute much analysis, but I wanted to earn my keep with interviews and editing. A comprehensive technical paper, printed out on tractor-feed paper, lay in the in-basket, written by Adager's Alfredo Rego. I tore into it with a red pen, thinking I was improving it. But misguided economy of English yanked the paper away from Alfredo's intentions and accuracy. Within six weeks he traveled through Austin and gave the local user group entertainment and enlightenment, all while telling me that leaving good technical work unmarred would have served everyone better.

Alfredo was gracious in his corrections that afternoon, because it seemed important to both of us to get things right from the beginning. Once my ears and cheeks stopped burning I took a closer look at the relations between tech writers and an editor still learning HP 3000 landmarks. HP was fighting hard against the tide of IBM and Compaq micros which were landing in businesses for less than half of what a Mighty Mouse cost. That $20,000 price tag was for a system with 512K of memory and 55 MB of disk. Oh, and "HP's usual 90-day warranty." The cost of support for the system was nowhere to be seen in that InterACT article.

HP dubbed its Mighty Mouse part of "a plan called the Personal Productivity Center that will integrate HP's 3000 and personal computer products." The latter was called HP 150, running a variation of CPM instead of the widely popular MS-DOS. It was a touchscreen computer with little but HP software which could use the touch capabilities. When we got one into the Chronicle offices it was a marvel -- but the KayPro portable micros were where our stories got banged out, doing work that created less noise than the IBM Selectic used when I'd written for that small town paper.

The rich resource I didn't expect on that hot wood-paneled afternoon was the ardor of the 3000's experts, developers and user group leaders. They hadn't been interviewed in newspaper style and were glad to help a cub reporter learn something about MPE/V, enough IMAGE to make his eyes glaze over, and the jungle thicket of peripheral hardware needed to link computers together and get them backed up and printing to dot matrix devices. HP's LaserJet was just out by that summer, but laser printing was a novelty few businesses used at the time.

Series37adThe Series 37 was new, but scarcely as fast as the Series III which HP had released more than six years earlier. HP went for small and less costly rather than improving power; it had its Series 68 powerhouses to do the high-transaction and forest-of-terminals work. But the Series 37 drew a fraction of a 68's electricity and didn't need raised flooring or special cooling or heavy-load wiring. Whether it needed an operator, as HP claimed it did not, depended on how much a business did with it. At the Longs stores, the 37s were confined inside mesh cabinets with just a slot open for backups to the cartridge tape drive. Administration was taken care of at the Walnut Creek data processing HQ.

What made the Mighty Mouse a breakthough was the way that a large company like Longs could rely upon the uniformity of the 3000's environment. A senior tech analyst Tom Combs told InterACT nothing but a 3000 was going to work to serve what'd eventually be hundreds of stores.

Combs explains that it's difficult to find computers small and cheap enough to run in multiple stores that will also run the same software as larger models. Not all IBM computers, for example, use the same operaing system. Personal computer were not considered for the same reason. When different models all run the same software, he maintains, software development and support becomes easier.

And Longs, like so many large customers using this smallest system, had its own software developed for managing its business. Relying on IMAGE everywhere and MPE/V that was backward compatible eventually became the differences which let those Microsoft-based PCs, then Unix, get into the hearts and minds of cost-sensitive businesses. But the IMAGE and MPE distinctions with industry standards didn't matter in 1984. Getting everything from one vendor working together, reliably, was the miracle that filtered down to that magic $20,000 entry price tag.

At SuperGroup Magazine, an article that best explained the system got itself scooped by my own fledgling story of six months earlier. But D. David Brown reviewed the box as a systems manager would, and he understood that HP had sneaked in a big-style computer inside a compact box with the Mighty Mouse.

This toy-like box is really no toy at all. It's a serious, down-to-business mainframe, and at the same time a painless entry point to the HP 3000 world for a small user. The upward growth path is virually unlimited. HP reports that as of April 1985, 2,000 Mighty Mice had been shipped, beating HP's projections by 20 percent. HP has finally gotten the small business user what he really wanted: A genuine HP 3000!

The fall of 1984 was a time of serious transition for both HP's business computing as well as my own journalism. Like a government reporter just moved into a small town, I had to earn the trust of both luminaries like Alfredo as well as the steady attention from officials at HP. It was like the first weeks of covering a county seat in Texas, where the county clerk and the city clerk become your lifeline to news as well as contacts. The 3000 was scampering into the realm of PCs with the Mighty Mouse, as the vendor assumed that a smaller mini or mainframe would satisfy small businesses. 

The Mighty Mouse did satisfy the 3000 customer who wanted affordable models, those with a data processing staff instead of office managers. But orders of magnitude more managers were choosing IBM and Compaq PCs for their offices in the middle '80s. Compaq and ATT, not Hewlett-Packard, got the business for office computing at The Chronicle. We relied on the community's developers, user group leaders, experts and vendors to teach our readers how to automate and administer. Those HP Mighty Mice of 1984 were going to be caught by HP's Spectrum servers in about four years' time -- when I could place a reporter in HP's next press conference which introduced a computer breakthrough that HP wasn't shipping yet.