TBT: Days of HP's elite software outlook
August 28, 2014
At the end of August of 1983, Hewlett-Packard mailed out a 92-page brochure that showed HP 3000 owners where to get the software they didn't want to create themselves. The Hewlett-Packard Business Software Guide covered the options for both the HP 3000 and the just-launching HP 250. The latter was a system that would sit on a large desktop, run software written for its BASIC operating system, and receive just six pages of specific notice out of the 90-plus in the HP sales guide.
What's interesting about this document -- apart from the fact that nearly all those photos have people in them -- is that HP's own programming development software and application tools are listed first in these pages. And in that order, too; owners of a system in 1983 seemed more likely to need software to create the bespoke applications so common in a system of 31 years ago. Applications from HP were always pushed before anything without the Hewlett-Packard brand.
But as I paged a bit deeper into this Throwback Thursday treasure, I found the genuine vitality that sold 10,000 of these minicomputers in less than 10 years' time: Third-party software, both in tools and in applications. HP made a distinction in this giveaway document for these programs, which they called HP PLUS software. A product could be Listed, or Referenced. But to get more information on either one of them, HP expected you to purchase a catalog with a lot more detail.
Not only was it an era without a Web, but these were the days when you'd pay for paper just to have a complete list of things you might purchase. The biggest issue was "will this run on my system?" That, and whether it really existed.
The Listed products "Must meet certain Hewlett-Packard qualifying standards to be listed in either the Technical or Business version of the HP Software Directory." Meanwhile, the Referenced software products "have been further qualified by being rated very good to excellent by users in at least six different organizations." If you could assemble six customers who'd rate your software for HP, your MPE product had a chance of making it into this free brochure.
August 1983 software from third parties that was referenced included the many flavors of MCBA financial applications, programs that were often customized as soon as they were added to a Value Added Reseller's price list. MCBA was really a suggested serving. Cognos didn't exist yet, but its applications were represented at Quasar Corporation offerings such as DOLLAR-FLOW ($FLOW$). "Budgeting, pro-forma projections, financial analysis, ad hoc spread sheet (two words!) reports, and performance reporting" were the treasures of $FLOW$.
Specialized apps such as Finished Goods Inventory--83 were simply Listed, cataloged with nothing more than the name of the company (DeCarlo, Paternite & Assoc. Inc.) and a telephone number. You'd find a program, ask your HP Customer Engineer if he knew anything about it, then call the software vendor. That's how DP departments rolled three decades ago, when the computer was making its bones growing up in the business markets. You went to a computer user group meeting to ask about these things among your colleagues, too.
A more detailed catalog, the New HP PLUS Software Directory, was also available that fall. Within a year it was two full volumes of software across all HP system platforms, although the vast majority of it was written for MPE. It was updated twice a year. This HP directory also gained a notoriety for being something of a wish book.
Companies would supply detailed descriptions of their software to HP, which would dutifully report it to the 3000 customers who'd bought the directory. Vendors said -- while telling stories at spots like SIG-BAR in the conferences everyone attended to keep up -- they'd write something up just to see if they'd get a call. If there was real interest, then software would go from Proposed to In-development. There was no community-wide reviewing service like an Amazon while shopping for packages which might sell for $10,000 or more. Some people felt lucky they had a resource with guidance. Precious few minicomputer apps were reviewed in the likes of Computerworld, Datamation, or Byte.
Of course, those last two publications are not being manufactured anymore. Unlike the HP 3000, they don't enjoy a virtualized reincarnation, either. Only the 3000 is doing as much current work as Computerworld.