Waiting in line to see a story of survival
Google's doodle touts COBOL's relevance

Long run of 3000 unreels beyond the dark

Newswire Editorial

By Ron Seybold

DarktheatreThis is the time of the year when movie critics everywhere assemble their retrospectives of 2013 films. The HP 3000 has been having something of a revival, as they call the movie's screening of old classics, because of the Stromasys emulator. Such an invention never would have gotten traction without HP's mistakes made after November, 2001. People stood by their servers, in part because they got messages from HP that the computer's run would be extended.

While they remained in their seats, CHARON's MPE-on-Intel debut was spooled up on the next projector.

In 2005, after all, there was the rude surprise to the vendors who became ardent partners of migration off the 3000. The deadline of 2006 became 2008, and then finally 2010. One such vendor said it was a disservice to partners who were ready to pick up the pieces. At HP’s support business lair, the company's lifespan of the 3000 was measured in how many months of payments might arrive from large customers. It had nothing to do with the quality of the server’s ecosystem, and everything to do with the quantity of the revenues it created. 

But as the karma police often do, they’ve caught up with the company which made raw business growth its mantra, instead of Next Bench design and Management by Walking Around. Old collegial business got eaten alive by tigers from the PC vendor Compaq, unleashed by the first CEO plucked from outside HP. So when Carly’s proxy fight took HP out of the hands of its family, and then spying and sexual harassment and then being fleeced on acquisitions followed, our friends in this market took bitter solace in seeing karma catch up. The water was still cold out in the sea around that scuttled ship. But at least the captains of the line were getting soaked. Three of every four 3000 owners never bought another HP enterprise server.

But that bitterness, the shaking of our fists at fate, it doesn’t make swimming in the current easier. Better to flatten our hands and stretch our arms into the bracing water and survive, see how it changes our lives. That’s the story we really want to tell, the one that we don’t know how we’ll live though. Only that we know that we will indeed live through it. Just wait. The last reel might be the sweetest.

At the Newswire we’ve lived through more than 18 years to tell some surprising stories. How the spirit and great heart of a community of people who use computers raised thousands of toasts on a single Halloween 10 years ago. You will never see a worldwide wake for a computer again. People love Apple’s products, and Steve Jobs got a floral tribute across the doorsteps of hundreds of his stores. But a little computer line that never had more than 50,000 machines running at once? A number so small that Apple sells that many iPhones in just eight hours? How could something so small ever generate smiles and black armbands and barbecues all at once, around the globe?

It had something to do with people, not with machines. Just like those seats in the dark at the Paramount Theatre had everything to do with light. When the Austin Film Festival opened up this fall, It had been 15 years since I’d been standing on line for a movie, hours at a time. But what was promised was light in black and white with an acting icon (Nebraska, with Bruce Dern at 77, still younger than Fred White) or in color and as obscure as a big-star movie could get (The Art of the Steal with Kurt Russell and Matt Dillon)  released in Canada so quick you couldn’t tune into two episodes of Glee before the movie was gone. Or a searing and sobbing documentary about women who were battling obesity with weight loss surgery, All of Me, the movie that won the audience prize at the Festival.

A400-500 breakdownI waited the longest for the movie with the biggest buzz, the Coens’ Inside Llwellen Davis. After two hours on line and three in the theatre, I felt like somebody who’d been eager for an HP Unix replacement. Good, sure, but not equal to my expectations. I’d been set up by Raising Arizona, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Blood Simple, and Fargo. The equivalent of the Series III, MPE V, the Series 68, the Mighty Mouse, the Spectrum computers of PA-RISC. The movie was just average by their standards, like the N-Class servers, or the petite A-Class that Dave Snow carried under his arm in the spring of 2001. At the time, it was so coveted somebody wanted to buy that first unit right there in the room of a conference that was also a casualty, SIG-PROF, dead along with Interex. We learned later HP crippled the A, to prop up prices of other 3000s.

We grew bolder as we all grew older, those of us who found a lifeboat, crafting our own raft away from the wreck. We learned things better than we knew a little bit: writing for story and drama, or Ruby on Rails and .NET, or yoga video production, or the art of teaching. Our friend John Burke, he of so many Newswire words, became a mathematics professor. It was just the way things added up for all of us. Everybody had a new plot of daily work, even while they kept cultivating what was left over from the bounty of the 1980s and 1990s.

There are more surprises yet, things as delicious as Susan Sarandon taking questions after another little known gem, the musical Romance and Cigarettes — so under-appreciated its director John Tuturro bought it back from the studio to save it. When the late great James Gandolfini breaks into song, belting out a Tom Jones tune, I didn’t believe it could work until I saw it. Something like the experience I saw in California when MPE booted up on a laptop, and a 3000 vet learned over and said it felt like everything MPE was brand new again.

Tension makes for a good story, the uncertain outcome of the hero’s greatest desire. Our most essential desire is to survive and grow older in peace and wisdom. Our movie’s last reel hasn’t unspooled yet, and the lights haven’t come up while the credits roll. Keep your thick soled shoes nearby. We can get in line together because we know each other, and say, “I wonder what we’ll see today?” Maybe we’ll hear a story a few more times about our escapes and heroic plans for next year. The business of our lives runs on stories.