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What If: Fault lay not in the 3000, but in HP?

In the early years of my HP reporting career, the company tried to sell PCs against IBM. It had innovative technology in touchscreen HP 150s with strong links to enterprise office software via those PCs. HP's ad slogan began with an invitation to a customer to imagine something more connected to the customer than IBM: "What If?"

ReporterNotebookIt's a good question today, nearly 30 years later, especially when used to evaluate HP 3000s. HP lopped off its futures with the server in 2001, less than a year before it attacked the PC market by purchasing Compaq. Some products had to go, if HP hoped to convince institutional shareholders that a $25 billion acquisition was good business.

Touchscreen 150So the 3000 was derided and deprecated by HP. The server had a failing ecosystem. Customers wanted other HP products, like PCs for businesses, running Windows. Over a few more years, HP acquired even more love of outside products. It changed itself as a company, while it fled from the challenge of asking customers what if about its unique technology like the HP 150. Now there are calls for HP to return to the company that it was before it became a consumer-obsessed, low-touch customer service juggernaut that's careened into a financial ditch.

What if the fault lay not in the HP 3000's starry design, but in HP's leaders themselves? When Steve Jobs takes a walk through the neighborhood of Palo Alto to counsel an ousted CEO of HP, you can be pretty sure that a great deal had changed for HP, and none of it for the better. And that walk took place more than two years ago. Jobs believed that Mark Hurd should've never left HP.

That's how completely Hewlett-Packard had faulted from its enterprise line. A leader who slashed R&D, and rubber-stamped even more pell-mell pursuit of the consumerist strategy, was now the bulwark. Proof enough HP had changed completely, and offered in a story this week from the Apple community.

If the HP 3000 were a sound product -- and it has been HP that's grown unsound since that 2001 Fall of the Compaq and MPE disasters -- perhaps we can hear a "What If" about the indelible value in the 3000 concept. A computer whose intellectual property, from silicon to software, is controlled by its creator. A system built on the use-it-forever designs of PA-RISC, rather than the churn of commodity systems.

Today I interviewed a former 3000 manager at Dayton T. Brown, the largest and most thoroughly equipped independent engineering and testing laboratory in the U.S. They purchased a Series 917 and a Series 937 in 1994. They stopped using them completely in 2007. That's 13 years at a major US business running on servers built to last. By way of contrast, that was a typical kind of enterprise product. When Dayton T. Brown bought their 9x7 systems in the early 1990s, only HP's printers were commodity items driving enterprise IT.

In the Apple world, this lifespan is the equivalent of desktops from 2003 still running the largest printer and mailing house in Austin. iMacs from a decade ago are still on the job in shipping, planning, even design at Touchpoint. Apple controls all of that intellectual property in those Macs, just as HP once did with the 3000.

The story circling in the 3000 community this week about Steve Jobs has him imploring Mark Hurd to return to HP. Hewlett-Packard was an essential part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Losing another CEO -- Carly Fiorina had left five years earlier -- was going to be bad for HP. MacRumors reports that Bloomberg Businessweek is telling this story about that fear of HP's faults.

Three days after he’d resigned as CEO under pressure from the company’s board of directors, Hurd received an e-mail from Steve Jobs. The Apple founder wanted to know if Hurd needed someone to talk to. 

Hurd met Jobs at his home in Palo Alto, according to people who know both men but did not wish to be identified, compromising a personal confidence. The pair spent more than two hours together, Jobs taking Hurd on his customary walk around the tree-lined neighborhood. At numerous points during their conversation, Jobs pleaded with Hurd to do whatever it took to set things right with the board so that Hurd could return. Jobs even offered to write a letter to HP’s directors and to call them up one by one.

The BusinessWeek article takes a look at how HP fell from its dominating position in tech. and if new CEO Meg Whitman can pull it out of the ditch. She's hearing many analysts say a split of HP -- into what it once was in the 3000 days, and another part of what it became afterward -- is the only way.

What if Hewlett-Packard wasn't right for the HP 3000 anymore, by 2001? The company had let its board fall under the spell of consumerist forces which made printers the primary profit engine. PCs were a natural product to follow a printer, and Compaq owned a dominant part of that market. That's why HP bought them -- to become number one and overtake Dell.

By now, the advice that's become rampant among investors -- the same audience that cheered HP into buying Compaq -- is that enterprise systems like the 3000, or Integrity, will continue to fail when paired with PCs.

And at Dayton T. Brown, no more HP servers run the largest labs in the US. Dell's servers, running Microsoft's Windows, have replaced the Hewlett-Packard products from the old HP Way. If HP wasn't right for the 3000 anymore -- instead of the other way around -- there's hope in a future where the gleaming heart of the system, MPE, can live beyond anything that HP might become over the coming year. As Shakespeare might have told the HP board and braintrust, "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves."