In an August of 16 summers ago, the first woman to lead a Dow 30 corporation waded into her new job as HP CEO. Carly Fiorina took the job that the HP board handed her after it ushered lifelong HP employee Lew Platt out of the top seat at Hewlett-Packard. At the first press conference announcing the transfer of power, Platt got himself hugged by Fiorina. It was a disarming move that signalled new days for the HP hegemony, and two years later, changes for the future of the HP 3000.
Fiorina made her mission the overhaul of the collegial HP, a company whose directors believed had missed the opportunity of the Internet. Platt was at the helm while Sun Microsystems ran laps around larger vendors like HP, as well as IBM. The 3000 was gaining its first sets of Internet-ready subsystems that summer, but Sun was already dug in as the first choice for a way onto the Web.
Fiorina arrived at her HP job too late to make an appearance at that year's HP World conference in San Francisco. It was an unfortunate circumstance, since the conference represented the largest group of HP customers to gather in one spot for that year, as well as many others. HP was celebrating its 60th anniversary, but it was Year One for the changes that would lead to pursuing growth through acquisitions of ever-increasing size. Within two years, the purchase of Compaq would represent Fiorina's boldest stroke, an acquisition that forced the vendor to select which business lines could be eliminated to prevent overlap.
The Compaq community of VMS users made the cut that the 3000 missed, and some in the MPE community believe that Fiorina knew little to nothing about the division whose futures were considered finished. In time it's become evident that most of the relatively-small businesses in HP built on server and OS technology have little future left at the vendor. One well-known 3000 citizen, the final Interex chairman Denys Beauchemin, reported this summer that VMS is experiencing the same fate as MPE, just a decade and a half later. Its heritage isn't saving it, either.
These days, I am watching the same death spiral with VMS, which HP also recently killed but in a somewhat cruel twist they are prolonging the agony a little bit. Now I migrate VMS/Rdb environments to Linux and Oracle. The VMS ecosystem is larger than the MPE one, but it's also older than when HP killed MPE, if that makes any sense. At the last VMS show, I don't think there was anyone under 55.
In the summer that saw Fiorina's ascent, Ann Livermore set aside her campaign for the CEO job and went to work for the HP Enterprise business afterward. HP was trying to catch up in Internet services including its oldest business platform, offering a solution it called e-services, I noted in an editorial.
Livermore’s team wrote the e-services chorus in lightning speed compared to HP’s classic pace. Now she’s the lightning rod for the company’s continuity, and its spark into the top ranks of Internet businesses. Keeping her at HP after a springtime campaign for HP’s top job will be an interesting challenge for Fiorina — perhaps the place the new CEO can make her quickest contribution.
I don’t mean to minimize Fiorina’s ultimate impact on the 3000 community. Having a fresh perspective on the 3000’s prospects could be a turning point. While outgoing CEO Lew Platt was eyeing HP’s bottom line, he could have been looking up to high-profit businesses like the 3000. His HP Way did not nurture a risk-taking environment. But Platt is more than his oversights. He can take credit for creating an environment that opened the door for the changes of Livermore and Fiorina.
Platt has been keenly aware of a woman’s presence earlier in his life, when his first wife died. In a recent BusinessWeek interview he talked about HP giving him the room to grieve, even afternoons off. “It taught me that things I thought were gender-related were not about gender at all, but about the role you are thrust into in life,” he said.
Platt had made his promises about the future of the HP 3000, starting from the first HP user conference where the NewsWire was present. "HP has worked extremely hard with a product like the HP 3000 to make sure that people who have bought it have a good future," he said in another August, four years before his 1999 retirement. He did envision some kind of transition. "We've put an enormous amount of energy to make sure we can roll those people forward," he said, a message I read as extending the lifespan of MPE.
One year after Fiorina took full hold of the reins of HP's future, she was seen in an Interex user group meeting with a pledge of her own, delivered via video. She made special note of the stumbling start for the system during her remarks broadcast 15 years ago, at HP World 2000.
“HP World has grown out of a single customer commitment, one that has lasted 27 years,” Fiorina said. “In 1972 HP introduced the HP 3000, our first multipurpose enterprise computer, a product that has been praised as one of the computer industry’s more enduring success stories.”
“But it didn’t begin that way,” she added. “In fact by many counts it got off to quite a rocky start. The first few systems were plagued by software glitches. And Dave Packard’s personal commitment to his customers turned the HP 3000 story around dramatically. First he sent teams of engineers to work around the clock until the system worked flawlessly. Second, he made sure that any customer upgrades could be easily integrated into existing 3000s. And thanks to his promise to be flexible and grow with the customer, what we’re now calling the e3000 has experienced almost three decades of success, and continues to thrive with a loyal following.”
Platt died at a young 64 years of age in 2005, a wine lover spending his last years enjoying a director's role at a major vintner. Meanwhile, Fiorina promises to make the coming Republican primary season interesting, daring to unseat others with longer track records.