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November wasn't a-happening for 3000s

EdMcCrackenArticleHP intended for a November of 40 years ago to be the debut month for the HP 3000. But delays swept the 3000's stage entrance more than a year farther into the future. One of the key players during that year was one of the system's best advocates, Ed McCracken.

He was charged with un-selling HP 3000s as his first job in public related to the system. According to Tom Harbron's Thinking Machines, the month of November 1972 was the final month that HP tried to keep that inevitable postponing of the system at bay. The future was obvious by December at Anderson College, where Harbron was leading the push to put a 3000 into the datacenter.

During the period from April to November, 1972, we continued to learn of delays. Cobol and IMAGE were pushed back from December 1972 to June 1973. We also wrote the 1620 simulator during this time, using HP’s new language called System Programming Language or SPL (not to be confused with SPS on the 1620).  SPL was essentially Algol with some machine dependent extensions.

By February of 1973, McCracken "was going about the country, visiting customers, and unselling the 3000," Harbron wrote in his book. At the time McCracken was only the Market Manager for Government, Education, and Medical Markets. Within a few years he became essential to putting the IMAGE database on every 3000. It was a move that most of the community's veterans consider the turning point for your server's survival in the markets of the 1970s.

About 10 years later, McCracken was on his way toward becoming the CEO of Silicon Graphics, but still working in HP as a VP. InterACT, the magazine of the Interex users group, interviewed him about HP's business server strategy in the spring of 1984. McCracken called the earliest days of the 3000 a time when customers were buying a database machine to create their own applications. He was taking note of a shift in the enterprise computing market space that would make outside software companies essential to 3000 success.

According to Chris Edler's Early History of the HP 3000, someone in the HP 3000's birthplace lab had come up with the clarion call that "November is a Happening" to spur on the platoon of engineers.

In the weeks prior to the release of the first HP3000, dozens of the "November is a Happening" posters were placed all over the factory floor. The posters showed an HP3000 going out the shipping dock door, ostensibly to its first customer, the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley.

HP installed the machine, turned it on, and discovered -- along with the customer, of course -- that the 3000 could only accommodate one or two users before falling to its knees. It was immediately returned.

IMAGE, the database which would win an award from Datamation when stacked up against other system vendors' software, was not a part of that November failure. It wasn't ready until 1974. The earliest success of the system matched a profile of a customer "looking for a generic database management tool to adapt to his own particular environment," according to the InterACT article. IMAGE literally was the HP 3000 to most of its earliest adopters. It's what led McCracken to bundle the database with the computer -- an unprecedented strategy at the time.

McCrackenMugBut by the '80s McCracken had become the GM of what HP called the Business Computer Group. He saw "the market has changed dramatically in the last four or five years. Now almost every customer is really interested in a complete solution." That meant letting third-party software companies, building applications as well as tools, into the HP 3000 strategy, in addition to software sold by HP.

In that November of 1972, it looked to HP like it would be enough to release an HP 3000 with programming languages and a database management system. A decade later bundling the database and selling the customer a range of HP-written apps and tools wasn't going to satisfy the majority of customers. What's more, the Not Invented Here attitude HP had taken toward partners was supposed to be on the wane.

But new independent software companies could only be lured to the HP 3000 if the vendor had an open architecture, one that relied upon similarities with other vendors'. HP, and the 3000, needed to become less of an island, McCracken said.

I think we used to be somewhat arrogant about our capability to survive as an island in the computer industry. We've come to realize that an open-architecture philosophy is fundamental to a successful strategy.

He went on to explain that HP was changing the architecture of the 3000 to offer a single design for all of its computing platforms. This was PA-RISC, which McCracken explained was "to have one architecture that spans the applications from personal computing to real-time control of machines to commercial machines." That would become HP's Series 100 PC efforts, the RTE real-time platform of the HP 1000, and the HP 3000. Oh, and a commercial role for the HP 9000 -- which had a head start on an architecture similar to other vendors' because it was based upon Unix.

McCracken left HP in 1984 to become CEO of Silicon Graphics, a company whose workstations powered the hottest graphics and lifted SGI to rock-star status. For eight straight years every movie, such as Men in Black, nominated for the Oscar for Achievement in Visual Effects was built on SGI systems. But unlike McCracken's advice for HP, SGI used proprietary MIPS processors and fostered its own ecosystem of software suppliers -- even while basing its OS on the not-quite-similar Unix.

Similarity became so prized at the Hewlett-Packard which McCracken left that 18 years after that Happening November, the company attempted to pry IMAGE loose from the HP 3000 by un-bundling it -- simply to encourage wider-installed database companies to select MPE and the 3000 as a supported platform and kick start sales. What had made the 3000 a winner for the 1970s HP was now being viewed as an island.

Those participating software suppliers of 1984 were not about to let HP cast away such a bundled target market, though. Most of them report that IMAGE made the 3000 as good as it would ever be for a high-value business platform. That's high-value as in one which is capable of lasting through many Novembers. And at some companies of as large as $5 billion yearly revenue, this November continues to be a month with 3000s in place, their month-end cycles still a-happening.