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History tells us to mind the futures gap

MindthegapHewlett-Packard's Millenial Version (2001.0) kicked out the 3000 a dozen summers ago. But your community still talks about that breakup, something like the girlfriend a fellow lost after she was so close that she knew your team's football players. (There's an allusion that might play on both sides of the Atlantic, now that our sports called football are both apace this weekend.) It's a worthy subject. A gap between futures talks and vendor reality must always be considered. This is the season of 2014's planning, after all.

The latest discussion about 2001 came out of a corner of the community's online outposts. Over in an exclusive sector, people talked about whether HP 2001.0 had ever violated regulations when it went to that summer's HP World show, talking up 3000 futures to anybody within the sound of the HP voices of Dave Snow and Winston Prather.

Timeline: Chicago hosts that summer's show in late August. All seems well on the slides and futures talks. Two and a half months later, the big Acme safe (Warner Brothers cartoon-style) gets dropped on the heads of users, managers and vendors everywhere. Was Carly Fionia's HP-Invent fibbing about the 3000's futures?

This week the chatter amounts to just speculations, unless an HP manager (that might be former GM Prather, or someone higher up) wants to reveal the internals. Yup, Winston's still at HP.

But I may as well concoct a scenario that might permit HP to make its presentations that summer and not break the rules. In this tale, HP hopes there's a lot of revenue growth coming soon for the 3000. Either that, or it's gonna go away. Fiorina was well-known for cracking the whip on revenue growth.

So after July meetings with big customers, here comes that August HP World conference. At the time, there's no lack of verbal assurances about 3000 futures from HP. Things in writing, or on a slide, are a lot more fuzzy. There's no date-certain about Itanium for MPE at that meeting in Chicago, either. One VAR I interviewed about the meeting said, "That's when we knew the writing was on the wall" about MPE. It wasn't going forward, he said.

So perhaps HP was hoping against hope they'd get a balloon-full of orders, or something to lift revenue growth. Mind you, the year's sales that led up to the 2001 meeting were plenty encouraging and on the rise -- this despite having nothing to sell but a behind-schedule refresh of the 3000 lineup. The refresh yielded A-Class and N-Class servers, but shipping only at mid-2001. Yeah, right around that crucial summer.

Y2K had held the customer base in place. Something shipping right away as an upgrade, a computer which used a more modern PCI bus and had a nice performance boost -- well, it might have netted sales to satisfy the "it's growing or it's going" execs inside HP. I leave it an exercise to the reader to remember which HP manager was driving 3000 R&D when N-Class systems were being developed. (Hint: I've mentioned the name more than once already.)

As I said, it's conjecture until someone who was inside those planning meetings, responding to CEO-level directives, opens up. I will probably live to see the tale told. But I'm only 56, and it's only been 12 years this summer since those meetings. 

Some vendors believe that a shift away from HP-crafted environments could be regarded as inevitable. Considering how the rest of the OS-centric HP enterprise business has fared since then, it's possible that for Hewlett-Packard, the company's misreading of 3000 durability was the only thing that made MPE the canary in HP's mineshaft of enterprise server business.

[Ref: Canary in the mineshaft: a caged bird carried down to warn miners of a leak of dangerous gas. If the bird keeled over, the miners left the tunnels immediately. Gas = new go-go growth demands from HP business. See: Merger with Compaq.]

Some of the veterans in our community believe that those 3000 futures decisions were being made on the basis of personal growth. Career growth, that is. Rather than keep the faith in futures of the 3000, some were giving their HP career more priority. Alas, at last count, HP has released-retired-fired more than 80,000 employees since that summer. So much for making HP careerism a priority.

The veterans acknowledge there's no graceful way to pre-announce that a product is going away. Many people got 30 days' warning, pre-November. I don't know about SEC regulations, but the 3000 business was never called out in any quarterlies. You could hardly find the Business Critical Systems numbers in statements circa 2001. There was a lot less public information, and certainly no webcast analyst presentations, as there are today.

Internally to HP, CSY was a line of business. I am imagining that the public trading rules regarding reports are executed this way: SEC regulations would not be disturbed if HP said something different in Chicago, 2001 besides, "the future looks great." It's been HP's habit, however, to say everything's great in public, until they make an announcement like the one in Las Vegas this June about OpenVMS.

The difference: HP had the stones to talk about OpenVMS going away during its annual conference this year. And now, during this month that's just begun, HP will face the music from the installed base at VMS Boot Camp. I recall the timing with the 3000 was quite different. First, announce the 3000 shutdown just before a big holiday period, when IT budgets for 2002 were already set. Then, not face a big customer conference for another 10 months. HP World LA was rowdy, but by then the customers had time to cool off. Nobody was migrating, however. Not in September of 2002.