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September 12, 2019

What was done to HP 3000s for good in 1990

Frozen-waterfallPhoto by Vincent Guth on Unsplash

One week when two of the 3000 community's greatest icons connected with me, it drew my attention back to the start of the 1990s. To say that decade was a very different time for the HP 3000 simplifies a much richer story. What's more, there are parts of that decade's accomplishments that continue to serve the community to this day, for those customers who rely on the frozen nature of MPE/iX.

The year 1990 was galvanizing for the 3000 community. I was reminded about the year when Adager's Alfredo Rego asked on the HP 3000 newsgroup, "What were you doing in 1990?" In a brief message, he noted that 1990 was the launch date for the world's first Internet browser, created by Tim Berners-Lee on a NeXT workstation. Rego pointed at a history page from 1990 about the start of the browser era. Then Rego noted

Enjoy it (typos and all).  Be sure to click on the links to the screen shots. Ah... Memories. Fortunately, the NeXT ideas have survived (and thrived).  Just as MPE ideas have (not). Sigh.

But 1990 was a high-water mark in HP 3000 advocacy, a habit which works today to survive those three decades. The HP 3000 users formed a community in way no other computer can claim, led by Wirt Atmar, founder of report solution provider AICS Research, creators of QueryCalc as well as QCReports and the free QCTerm.

Atmar knew better than most about advocacy, for in the fall of 1990 he helped spark a charge that changed HP's business practices about the 3000 — changes which you might argue lasted until the vendor stepped away for good. Especially for the MPE users who have changed little about their HP 3000 stable environment.

In 1990, Atmar wrote an open letter to HP published in The HP Chronicle, the monthly news magazine I was editing at the time. In his letter Atmar chastized HP for the way it was relegating IMAGE to minor status among the 3000's futures and features, as well as the general treatment of a loyal customer base. Word was building in the community that HP had plans to separate the IMAGE database from the purchase of any 3000. The database had been included with the 3000 since 1976, a radical move at the time that sparked the creation of untold numbers of utilities and applications.

A programmer or development company could create an application or software for the 3000 community using IMAGE as the database, knowing that every 3000 out there would be able to make use of the creation. 3000=IMAGE was a formula close to being broken. The community reared up on its hind legs and castigated its supplier, using the Interex 1990 user group meeting as the forum for its dismay. SIG-IMAGE, a Special Interest Group of users gone dormant at the time, re-formed to organized the complaints and demand remedies.

In community lore, the protests around the meeting are known as "The Boston Tea Party," in part because they changed HP's course of conduct about customers. Adager's Fred White was the most scathing critic of HP's myopia of the time, but a row of customers also lined up behind and in front of him at the public microphones in a Boston meeting hall.

This was a time when the HP Roundtable was the highlight of the conference, a chance to quiz the top executives of the company, right out in the open, about shortcoming and problems. The national IT press of Datamation, Computerworld and Information Week, all with the HQs just up the road, were on hand that year to report on the rebellion. HP looked chagrined and embarrassed fielding customer complaints — during a time when customer communities had a different impact on their vendors.

Atmar contacted me to update a few links about him just days before Rego's message. The convergence felt profound to me at the time. Atmar mentioned he couldn't help me in my search for back issues of the Chronicle, because he had only one left on his shelves: The issue with his open letter, "which basically caused the [1990] Boston riot." (My search remains open for any Chronicle issues before 1992. Email me if you've got the good old stuff.)

In the fall of that year, the users not only stalled the separation of IMAGE from the 3000, but triggered a "Customer First" strategy HP used to retain its 3000 customers — a strategy which HP modeled in its other enterprise computer operations at the time. Glory indeed, even if it arrived at the end of a pointed stick of sharp criticism and some disgust. But as Atmar pointed out, "it was a glorious moment, yes, but as the Roman slaves told the Roman generals, 'All fame is fleeting.' "

Customer First became a mantra in a new generation of HP 3000 division managers, the idea of customer delight: unexpected features, beyond commonplace requests. But at the same time HP became serious about creating a steady stream of HP-UX customers, using the HP 3000 installed base as an easy supply of converts. At the time of the Boston uprising, Atmar noted, HP was easy to take advantage of, because the vendor was afraid of negative publicity.

One lasting benefit of the 1990 uprising was that Customer First ideal. Many vendors have excised computer systems from their lineups. Few indeed, though, are making a business model for future cancellations. When HP's virtual CSY managers said in the middle 2000s, "We need to give the system the ending that it deserves," that's a result of Customer First, the vendor's finish to the 336 months it has sold and supported your server.

Keeping HP accountable became so much more difficult in the 21st century than the 20th, however. Impossible, indeed, under the provisions of a confidential exchange with the vendor that OpenMPE had to observe while it negotiated the future of the OS. We might've seen more about OpenMPE's success with that Cone of Silence removed. I sighed along with Rego at that removal's prospect, given the leverage HP retains to this day with its stewardship of MPE/iX.

But as I said at the top of this story, the 1990s were a different time for your community. In the era when the computer was increasing its customer base and celebrating 25 years of success, I asked Atmar what the birthday meant to the customers.

Maturity: If you were a business owner or manager, I can't think of a single word that you would want to seek out and celebrate more than a mature solution, one that can easily demonstrate that it can do what it says it does. Immature solutions, on the other hand, are going to cost you an awful lot of money — and a growing segment of the business community is beginning to understand that. You can only be lead down the garden path so many times before it begins to dawn on you what it's truly costing you.

02:36 PM in History | Permalink

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