If only the HP 3000 were less costly. The price of the system and software was a sticking point for most of its life in the open systems era, that period when Unix and Windows NT battled MPE/iX. HP's own Unix servers were less costly to buy than the 3000s using the same chipset. Twenty-one years ago this season, the cost of a 3000 became a problem HP wanted to solve.
Cheaper 3000s would be a field of dreams. If a developer could build an app, the customers would come.
Now, Hewlett-Packard was not going to cut the cost of buying every HP 3000 in 1997. When developers of applications and utilities made their case about costs, the HP 3000 division at last created a program where creators would get a hardware break. The Series 918DX was going to help sell more 3000s. It would be the only model of 3000 HP ever sold new for under $10,000. A less costly workbench would attract more application vendors.
The list price of the DX was $7,077. Still more than a Unix workstation or a Windows PC of 1997. The thinking of the time came from a new team at the 3000 division, where marketing manager Roy Breslawski worked for new GM Harry Sterling. Removing a cost barrier for small, startup developers was going to open the doors for new applications.
HP simply adjusted its pricing for hardware and software on a current 3000 model to create the DX. The product was a Series 918/LX with 64 MB of memory, a 4GB disk, a DDS tape drive, a UPS, and a system console.
HP included all of its software in the bundle, such as compilers for C, COBOL, FORTRAN, BASIC, Pascal and even RPG. It was all pre-loaded on that 4GB drive: a Posix Developers Kit, ARPA Services, Workload Manager, Glance Plus, TurboStore, Allbase/SQL. No 3000 would be complete without IMAGE/SQL. The harvest was rich for the small development ventures.
The size of the bundled HP software created one of the drags on the DX. HP automatically billed for the support on every program. When developers started to evaluate the offer, the $7,000 hardware came with $14,000 worth of support commitments.
HP leasing wasn't an HP option for such an inexpensive server, however. Rental costs would amount to buying it more than once. The vendors who were sensitive to hardware pricing didn't have strong sales and marketing resources. They could build it, but who would come?
The 3000 vendor community of 1997 was excited about the prospects, both for new customers who might buy a 3000 as a result of a new app — as well keen on prospects for their own products. Within a few months, 14 third-party companies offered 30 products either free or at rock-bottom discounts to developers buying the 918DX. The idea was noble and needed because the 3000 had fallen far behind in the contest to offer apps to companies. One developer quipped that HP would need to equip the system with a bigger disk drive to handle all the available software.
The number of available third party programs might well have been greater than the number of DX systems ever sold. All HP required of a company was to sign up for the SPP developer program, a free membership. The roadblock didn't turn out to be a cheaper 3000 for smaller vendors. Although the DX was thin on storage, RAM, and horsepower, the one thing that would've moved the computer to the front of development plans was customers. The 918DX was not going to make orders appear, just the software for them.
In 1997 the ideal of a startup was still new, surrounded by some mystery. The Internet still had a capital letter on the front of the word and keeping costs low was important to savvy developers. Low hardware costs were a benefit. Sterling said the package was designed to draw out development efforts from sources with high interest in the HP 3000 market. "You guys have been telling us this for two years," he said. "I say it's time we try it, and see what happens."
"It was like Christmas in August," said Frank Kelly, co-chair of the COBOL Special Interest Group in the earliest days of the DX offer. Birket Foster, SIGSOFTVEND chairman, said "HP has come forward and done the right thing. We expect this will be a very good developer platform and the right tools will show up for it."
Developers delivered the tools and some showed up to purchase the DX. The dead weight of not being Unix or Windows, with their vast customers pools, is what pulled down 3000 app availability. By today, those 21 years have delivered a market for a 3000 where an N-Class server, 60 times more powerful than the Series 918, sells for about as much as the DX.
The Field of Dreams doesn't get its future told in the classic 1989 film of the same name. The field does exist, however, a stretch of Iowa farmland near Dyersville where the baseball faithful pay $10 to relive that movie magic. It's a beautiful field, and people do come.