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August 12, 2019

Turning 35 in an HP career, with older smiles

HPCOct1984

It was 35 years ago this month that the HP 3000 entered my working life. It took several more months to say it had entered my heart and the rest of my life. I usually mark that heartfelt anniversary around December. During that 1984 winter month, I went to a Florida Regional Users Group as my first solo computer trade show. Meeting MPE pros face to face made my career a personal mission.

Stealing_Home_Front_Cover_Web_July 12_kirkusIn the steaming summer of 1984, however, I'd only begun to press the limits of my suburban newspaper experience. I'd been a sports editor, laying the groundwork for my baseball-and-boyhood memoir Stealing Home that was published this month. I'd interviewed Sonny Bono already, then wrote a feature I banged out on an IBM Selectric in an office in a room beside the presses, a story that was on a front page hours later. Small boys hawked that Williamson County Sun issue on the corners of the Georgetown square. I needed more for my familly than the romance of small town journalism, though.

Thirty-five years ago I answered a two-line job ad in the Austin American Statesman classifieds. The founders of the just-minted Chronicle needed an editor-reporter. With little more than my avid curiosity, a journalism degree with a computer science minor, and the need to find better health insurance for my 19-month old infant son, I took that $21,000 a year job. In 1984, there was an HP 3000 memory board that cost more than that. The Chronicle's founders were so uncertain of their relationship with HP they didn't even use the vendor's initials in the name of the publication.

It was a good year to bring newswriting skills to the 3000 market. HP launched its HP 3000 Series 37 Office Computer, a 112-pound gem you could run in a carpeted office, a couple of weeks after I moved into a wood-paneled office in Northwest Austin just down the street from Texas Instruments. The LaserJet rolled out that August, the HP 150 Touchscreen appeared in the spring, plus the Series 110 laptop. We called the Series 100s portable computers, not laptops, and I lusted after one. I had to content myself with a Kaypro II, a 32-pound portable that used CPM to drive programs it could only run if their floppy disks were inside that Kaypro.

I call these Grandpa IT stories, and I quip about the era of the steam-powered Internet. But I am a genuine grandpa now, so the stories are an even better fit than they were when I told them a decade ago. On that 25th anniversary of my HP 3000 reporting, I shared such stories.

HP sent its first CEO not named Hewlett or Packard to the Interex conference Anaheim in 1984, so long ago that the annual event wasn't even held in the summertime. CEO John Young had to tell customers there a now too-familiar story about the 3000's future. Crucial improvements were going to be delayed. Even worse was the multi-year program to boost the 3000's architecture from 16 to 32 bits was being canceled. Those dreams of Vision would be replaced with the Spectrum Project, but HP painted few technical details about the engineering that would launch HP Precision Architecture Reduced Instruction Set Computing (PA-RISC).

That's the same PA-RISC that Stromasys now emulates using Charon, sold more than three decades later. It can be tricky to predict how long something will be useful. MPE/iX has retained enough value to spark an emulation of that 1984 processor design. Not many people are daunted in the extreme about the coming 2028 date rollover for MPE/iX. Stromasys sells a solution for that. 

I arrived in the Chronicle offices with those echoes of Anaheim written into the nine back issues on the shelves.The 1984 show was the debut for Wilson Publications, the company that created the Chronicle. John and Mary Wilson told me their stories of struggling to get onto the show floor to exhibit at the conference. They'd pre-paid for the booth, but the user group didn't want to admit a competitor to the show. It was a modest affair of 1,600 programmers, vendors, and HP engineers. But it gathered a community with enough potential to spawn three publications already. By that year, Interact magazine and SuperGroup magazine competed with The Chronicle.

Coming from three years of suburban newspapering, I was used to competition. The Highlander was one of two papers on the same block of Burnet, Texas, a town of just 3,500. I started my role in HP competition by getting scooped. The 3000's biggest product rollout of the year was the Series 37, a server nicknamed the Mighty Mouse because it was HP's first minicomputer that could operate outside a specialized computer room. HP called it the HP Office Computer. I called out something else across my office when I learned about the new product, a phrase unsuitable for a family paper. Arriving without any contacts, I didn't know the Mighty Mouse existed when we sent my first Chronicle to the printers without any inkling of the 37. Interact arrived in our mail two weeks later to break the news and humble me.

Once I began to find my sources, HP news flowed faster. It was a time before Fake News. The 3000 was growing small enough to get into offices without raised flooring and computer room cooling. The hum of secrecy and hope of invention filled my first HP year. Getting people to talk meant earning their trust during a time of Non-Disclosure Agreements.

“The mid-80s were a time of transition, endless NDAs, and uncertainty in the HP 3000 world,” recalls Denys Beauchemin, a chairman of the former Interex board who already had seven years of 3000 experience by 1984. “You got in at a very good time.”

It was an era when attending a national Interex conference cost an attendee less than $100 a day. All eyes were aimed toward HP's updates, promised for 18 months after Anaheim. HP needed Spectrum desperately to keep pace with DEC, which was already selling a 32-bit minicomputer system. Within a couple of years, ads printed in silver ink told the 3000 owners "Digital Has It Now." In 1984, HP was four years away from 32-bit systems.

HP kept expanding the 3000's mission to help it get traction, selling what the industry was calling a general-purpose computer. Jim Sartain, who'd become IMAGE lab manager in the 1990s, started at HP in 1984 helping develop HP 3000 graphics products including EasyChart. “At the time, there was no easier way to create a chart that displayed business data represented as a bar, line, or pie chart,” Sartain recalled.

He described an era when most businesses needed an overhead projector for the transparencies they called foils, plastic with cardboard frames that were created with color plotters. “This was before there were any easy-to-use PC programs for this purpose,” he told me 10 years ago.

A lot has changed over these three-and-a-half decades since I began telling 3000 stories. Foils and plotters are gone, the Sun is printed miles away from its reporters' laptop-driven desks, and the paper that became the HP Chronicle is as vanished as Interact. I'm happy to still be on the scene, though, with that curiosity in my heart, plus a smile on these much older lips about this career.

11:06 AM in History | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 08, 2019

Dog days were always part of 3000 summers

Stealing_Home_Front_Cover_July 12_kirkus
A summertime gift, ready to play on your ebook reader

It's August and it's quiet in Texas. Step outside any building at 3 in the afternoon and you're struck by the silences. The birds know better than to chirp, the only sounds on the street are the wind ruffling along the curbs, and the hum of AC units and pool pumps boils down from the yards with stunted grass.

It's 104 out there, a summer that tamps down just about everything until after the sun sets. Things don't move much, a situation that was usually at hand during the last three decades and more of 3000 history.

We'd all wait for the middle or the end of the month of August, or sometimes until September, to hear the beat of each others' feet down hallways. There was the national conference to attend by then, the one called Interex for many years, then HP World once Hewlett-Packard sold the idea to the user group of branding the show around the vendor, instead of the user group.

That conference, whose heartbeat pulsed on the exhibits floor, was such a landmark we'd plan vacations around it. Rare were the years when the community gathered before the second full August week. People got their kids back into school right around conference time. Then we'd appear in person to learn our trade and our tech world's future better.

There's an annual conference in my life again, now that a user event is a rare MPE experience. The Writer's League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference brings authors together with book agents. Along the way, they stop by a trade show booth where I chatter about stories like I did in spots like San Francisco (three times) Detroit (only once) and Orlando (in a Florida August we endured like a database reload, waiting for the end of the heat).

I'm an editor anew at that conference, and this year I have a book of my own to debut. It took its opening cut at the plate during that authors' show. Stealing Home: A Father, a Son, and the Road to the Perfect Game was six years in the making. It's the story of an 11-day, 9-game road trip with my Little Leaguer in the final summer before the NewsWire came into the world. It was 1994 and the annual conference was almost as late as it's ever appeared: Sept. 25 in Denver. It snowed on the last day of the show.

Earlier in that year I was a divorced dad taking my best shot at being a full-time parent. In search of the perfect vacation and overcompensating like any divorced dad, I looked at my own history of being a son of a man who was epic himself. Then he took his own life and I drove away from the memory of that loss. The summertime trip in a rented convertible with my son was my best effort at remembering my dad, answering questions about why, and finding the path to make my road ahead a more peaceful place.

We can't change the past, but we can better understand it with earnest study. Every time August arrives I think about the summers where all of us came together to try to understand MPE, or HP, or just whatever new morsel was rolling off of data sheets and publication pages.

We call these dog days out of habit, a phrase that most of us don't know refers to the first rising of the Dog Star. I have a star to lift up with my memoir. I hope my readers here will download it, enjoy it, and leave some kindnesses in the review margins. I'm still pleased to find the constellations that continue to rise in our 3000 world. Like we always did in August, I hope to bring along a few new readers and tell a new story with words and pictures. Thanks for reading, clicking, and downloading my stories.

05:14 PM in History, Homesteading | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 06, 2019

CAMUS gives the 3000 an Illinois play date

MANMAN 9 plate
The manufacturing society CAMUS is holding a Reunion Day for HP 3000 managers and owners. Since it's CAMUS, this is also a meeting for the Digital ERP users. The Computer Aided Manufacturing User Society, after all, is wrapped around MANMAN, for most of the attendees.

This is only the second meeting in as many years for MPE/iX users in North America. Last summer, the faithful and well-studied 3000 folk in Silicon Valley spent an afternoon at a famous pub across from the old HP campus on Homestead Road. There were songs and classic videos, plus a lot of talk to catch people up on their lives. A slide show caught people up with hardware maintenance.

Duke Reunion 2018

This year's event is Sunday, August 25 in 3 PM in Addison, Illinois, a town among the western Chicago suburbs. At the Dave & Buster's at 1155 N. Swift Road, Terri Lanza and Keith Krans will hold down a party room at the popular game palace and sports bar and restaurant. There's a buffet included with the $20 ticket, plus access to a cash bar. Lanza needs a count of attendees by August 19, so she can fully prepare for the buffet.

Lanza has a history of gathering 3000 folk. She started up the party in 2011 when CAMUS gathered as part of the HP3000 Reunion at the Computer History Museum. CAMUS had its event at a nearby hotel. That remains the best-attended event so far in the post-Interex era. A meeting in 2007 gathered a healthy array of anxious and resigned attendees. Vendors and support consultants are always in big number at these gatherings. Both of those post-Interex events were propelled by the enthusiasm engines of Alan Yeo and Mike Marxmeier, of ScreenJet and Marxmeier Software AG, respectively.

This year's reunion runs until 9 PM. Registration is by email or phone to Lanza ([email protected], 630.212.4314) or Krans ([email protected]). They also have advice and tips on where to stay for attendees arriving from out of town.

Meeting in person can connect you with a resource to help maintain a 3000 and forestall the ultimate migration 3000 sites face. Being in a room with others who know the 3000, the old HP which loved the server, and the legend of MPE — that's special. The 3000 was always a marketplace with a vibrant, personal community. This was a big part of our decision to deliver NewsWire to the market during a summer 24 years ago.

10:28 AM in History, Homesteading | Permalink | Comments (0)