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January 28, 2015

Stealing After an Emulator's Magic

Radio manIn these new days after the end of the Stromasys freeware emulator offers, it's instructive to recall how much magic the product's concept proposed more than 11 years ago. People in 2003 began by wondering who would ever need something like an emulator, with so much pretty-fresh hardware around. Now companies want an emulator so badly they're trying to make a two-user freeware version do the work of HP-branded iron.

Charon for the 3000 was doubted from the beginning. It began to emerge after five full years of HP delays -- the company didn't want to work with any emulator builder, once it became apparent that the MPE/iX internal boot technology would have to be shared.

Eventually Software Resources International, the company that became Stromasys, was approached. After a half-decade of losing 3000 sites to Sun, Microsoft and IBM, HP wanted to encourage a restart of a project. But back in 2003, an emulator looked like a theory at best. Two additional companies were considering or planning products to give 3000 hardware a real future. Hewlett-Packard had told the community no more new 3000s would be built after fall of '03.

By the time that end-of-manufacture was imminent, Computerworld got interested in the emulation outlook for HP 3000s. The newsweekly ran a front page article called Users Unite to Keep MPE Alive. The subheading was "Get HP to agree to plan for emulator to ease e3000 migration," which meant Computerworld's editors misunderstood what homesteaders desired. Not an easier OS migration, but a way to keep using their systems on fresh hardware.

Third parties such as HP's channel partners and consulting firms don't know if there's enough commercial demand to justify the investment [in buying an emulator]. Potential users who are preparing migration plans say they need to know soon whether an emulator is actually coming.

They needed to know soon because staying with MPE and skipping a migration sounded like a good alternative. Just one company could manage to keep the concept alive in the lost years between 2004-2009. SRI had HP heritage (well, Digital brainpower) and a record of helping HP's VMS customers stay with that OS. Looking at how emulation helped, HP had proof that it could help the 3000 community.

One customer interviewed by Computerworld called anyone's 3000 emulator vaporware. While people couldn't plan for it, General Chemical's manager of tech operations Jim Haeseker also said "if an emulator were available now, that might be a different story."

At the time people were considering the emulator as a migration plan, but not away from MPE. This was a way to get off of HP's iron and on to something with a real future, even in the forecasts of 2003. The only thing that HP had done to help was talk to OpenMPE and then "agree to permit an emulator that would enable MPE to used on other HP hardware."

But the OpenMPE of 2003 had no firm plan on how to make an emulator a reality. No budgeted project, just companies that could make an emulator part of their plans once it existed. HP said it was in discussions with emulator developers "to understand what resources would be helpful." Only SRI, to become Stromasys, pursued what the community wanted.

We told our readers of our Online Extra at the time

Several sites quoted in the story were skeptical about how much OpenMPE’s most recent focus, an emulator to mimic 3000 hardware, might be able to help them soon. Timing appears to be a major issue in the story’s comments that focused on the prospect of a software-based PA-RISC emulator. Gavin Scott, VP of Allegro Consultants and a potential creator of an emulator to replace HP 3000 hardware, was described as “non-committal” about the project, though Scott’s actual quote just detailed the prospective cost, and commented on the uncertainty about how many customers would buy such a product. 

A customer site in Quebec offered a quote that they wouldn’t consider an emulator as a migration plan — unless they were convinced one could be built. And a technical manager of operations at General Chemical called the emulator “vaporware,” but added that if it were available, he might make allowances for it.

We added that we'd thought a more lasting project for OpenMPE would be the access rights to MPE/iX source code, to be used by the members of the organization's virtual lab, with results to be shared among OpenMPE's members. "That's more important than an emulator which competes with used hardware for sales. The heart and soul of the 3000's unique value lies in IMAGE and MPE, not in PA-RISC hardware." We were right, but we wouldn't be today. The newest of HP's iron is now more than 11 years old.

MPE's source code rights would not be released, but an emulator license for MPE arrived in 2004. Here in the light of 2015, it appears that the aging hardware is being kicked to the curb by a few companies in favor of unlicensed use of freeware that was built for enthusiasts or testing.

After the Computerworld piece, we interviewed the chief of a emulator firm, Strobe Data, one that had to mothball its HP 3000 project. Strobe couldn't out-wait HP. "The thing about emulators is that they just get more valuable with time," said Willard West. Now that there's the magic of Charon as a real product, it's become valuable enough to run at any cost. "We just overlooked the license payment" might be offered as an excuse. That argument proves emulation's value to the community. Maybe there's a way back to freeware with limits to protect everybody.

10:25 PM in History, Homesteading | Permalink

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