Upstart startup leads off with 3000 news
October 15, 2020
Do you remember the day your first 3000 logon banner rolled across a terminal or a PC? That heady feel of stepping into something new with a promise of permanent promotions? You knew about MPE, a little, or just slid into an office chair and began to plug away at COBOL apps that tapped IMAGE data for the first time.
Starting the NewsWire, 25 years ago today, was not like that. My partner Abby and I arrived at the first issue with 22 years of publishing experience. Between us, we'd managed and launched operations for 18 news publications in the tech industry. Abby was already a publisher at four different magazines.
What was different about the NewsWire startup was its ownership. Just us, along with 10,000 or so owners of HP 3000s. Our audience owned our future. A few told us we were making something that would turn out to make us nothing. A subscription was "Not even worth $10 a year," said one 3000 veteran who'd written features at the HP Chronicle, my previous 3000 outpost. He came on to write for the NewsWire in our October 1995 issue, Volume 1 Number 1, as we say in publications.
That first technical feature, written by someone who doubted we'd sell subscriptions, was "PatchManager/iX: Maintenance Simplified." It toured the new software from HP for patching MPE/iX 5.5. That release was only forthcoming, as they call books that are promised but not yet released. In particular, one staging tool in PatchManager would improve patching. "Welcome to the 21st Century," the feature read. "MPE will go one better than most Unix systems with the StageMan/iX."
The software resolved a crying need. "Backing out a patch in today's MPE/iX environment can rival the agony of abdominal surgery—without the benefit of amnesia," Guy Smith wrote.
HP had been working on PatchManager/iX for more than a year by October of 1995. In publishing the NewsWire 25 years ago, we were picking up the trail of a business server getting a restart from its vendor. PatchManager was "created strictly to address customer issues with the patching process, not as a cost-saving measure," HP said.
Like our readers, we were more cautious about new technology from the commodity sector. One report said "HP 3000 managers press Win95 into service—slowly" while the 3000-ready app Netmail/3000 was releasing DeskLink. The module of Netmail connected HP Deskmanager mail nodes to the outside world. "Until DeskLink came along, HP had been recommending the HP Deskmanager sites set up a Unix system to give their Desk users Internet access." The fall of 1995 was so different that email systems were thriving that didn't use the Internet—we always capitalized the word Internet that year.
We counted on those subscribers for our first revenues, but it was the advertisers and vendors who showed up first. At one point over the last 25 years, we had more than a thousand paid readers. That point arrived years after ads from sponsors—we borrowed the term from TV advertising—carried the NewsWire's fortunes. A publisher, my partner Abby stared down the daunting first months with just a few advertisers. WRQ, the biggest software company serving the 3000 other than HP itself, shook our hands on the Toronto Interex 95 floor for a full-page spread. Those pages 12 and 13, plus HP's ad on the inside front cover and Adager's ad on the back cover, were among our bedrock supporters. Full pages from MB Foster and the Support Group were also part of the starting lineup of our startup. All are serving the 3000 today. Well, not HP.
Creating the graphics files for printing was also Abby's job, tied so closely to the artwork for the ads. I came in during her first issue work to find our Macintosh LC struggling through refreshing pages. We ordered a Power Macintosh 8500 that day, but the chugger of the LC was going to have to get us through our first printing. 1995 was not a great year for Apple. In a few more months, Bill Gates would advise Apple to sell itself to Microsoft.
HP assured our readers they wanted open systems computing. The 3000 was putting on the clothing of an open system, an ill-defined term that usually meant Unix. Open was certainly not the truth about any system vendor's Unix, operating systems usually handcrafted from the standard Berkley Unix to exploit vendor hardware. Unix was open in the sense that software vendors always supported it in general. On the ground, vendor to vendor, the OS had as much support in apps as MPE/iX. If your app was having a problem, you called a vendor support line and logged your problem.
Taking our shot
If MPE/iX enjoyed the popularity of Unix in 1995, we might not have taken our shot with the NewsWire. The 3000 world was a forgotten backwater of IT. Our modest venture of two publishing pros in two back bedrooms, tapping experience and a deep list of contacts and experts, never would have had much chance against the likes of publishing giants like IDC, CMP, Ziff Davis, or even Datamation. I'd written freelance for Datamation two years before our NewsWire upstart startup. In the year before we launched the NewsWire we'd both worked on contract for Interex, writing and managing subscription campaigns. One of the hardest talks we faced in that fall was telling Interex executive director Chuck Piercey we were going to sail our own ship into the rest of 1995.
Always the former sports editor at heart, I wrote an editorial for that issue that compared the 3000 to baseball legend Cal Ripken. That year, Ripken broke the record for consecutive games played without a day off. Choosing to use the 3000 represented that same pursuit of reliability.
"All around MPE environments, other systems go down, fail, and struggle to stay online. The HP 3000 takes the field every day. If computers were baseball players, the HP 3000 would be the Cal Ripken of the league. Cal recently broke Lou Gehrigs' Major League record for most consecutive games played." The numbers matched up. Ripken had played in 99 percent of the innings across the 2,131 games in a row. "Cal is steady, productive, and not flashy—but respected by those who watch baseball closely. Those are the traits of the HP 3000."
We started up in October, a time that leads up to the World Series. In the summer of 1994, I'd toured ballparks with my 11-year-old Little Leaguer for a road trip. The journey and its fatherhood roots would become Stealing Home, after 25 years of conception, revision and writing, then publishing. Baseball felt like a natural fit for the NewsWire and our 3000 focus. Willie Mays was a baseball legend and a star. He knew it was an every day, all the time job. "It isn't hard to be good from time to time in sports. What's tough is being good every day," he said. That was the 3000 and its community and its major league of vendors: good every day.
Not without fears
We had our panic and fears during those earliest days. 3000 owners might have experienced some on the day they learned HP wasn't going to continue selling the servers. They could do little to change that. We had to ride out the fallow times in the first year, those months when some vendors wanted to wait to see who'd support the upstart news outlet.
When we traveled to our first Interex show with a full issue, in Anaheim's HP World of 1996, HP was waiting with a warning. Frankly, the state of the 3000 market was not going to earn an HP recommendation of the 3000 to the large corporations. Glenn Osaka had been in charge of the 3000 group and then moved up to managing the business server group. Hearing that HP's heart wasn't in its 3000 work sent a bolt of panic into us. Two people with ad contracts to serve and plenty of ink, paper, and postage to buy—we didn't want to hear how little the upper HP brass thought of the 3000. It was a legacy business, after all. Show some respect.
Little of that first hard summer of 1996 matched the wonder of dreaming up the NewsWire in the spring of the previous year. In March of 1995, we talked about a newsletter that would do the work of a magazine, produced on a tight budget. We'd worked for a publisher together whose purse strings were always drawn tight. We didn't need four-color printing. We'd learned to do good with two colors: black, and a fire engine red. We had to educate many a vendor on how to create artwork that required only two colors.
Then we printed the first issue and got the newsletters delivered two weeks late, produced on too-heavy paper that busted our postage budget. A new printer took us to press the very next month. Abby had to hunt down a graphics company to replace the in-house work the old printer performed.
Y2K and the rising tide of tomorrows
Like many people in our community, the approach of the Year 2000 lifted our ship. Advertising swelled as software companies added products and customers. The legacy applications and systems were going to need more attention to get them through the narrow part of the calendar, that Dec. 31 when the first two digits of the year were going to turn over for the first time in computing history.
The 3000 business seemed to be soaring by the end of 1999, a period when we posted some of our highest page counts. Interex conferences carried extra ad dollars and gave us chances to sign on new subscribers. The web site was popular enough to carry a paywall tied to subscriptions. For the first three full years, an HP 3000 hosted our web pages. Our webmaster Chris Bartram created a random passcode generator on a 3000 which assigned login passwords for subscribers. After more than three full years, another website, 3kworld.com, paid to license our content. We walked away from further subscription growth to get our stories into a wider world.
More than two years later, HP's managers looked at the prospects for selling these servers in a post-2000 world. Maybe legacy computing became more vulnerable after the classic apps cleared the Y2K hurdle. We'd only been publishing for about six years when the fateful November 2001 news arrived. I developed the Homesteading label for the thousands of customers who'd be going nowhere soon. I was in Europe vacationing with my son when the call from Abby arrived. In a burst of hubris and desperate hope, I rewrote a front page of the Flash Paper that handed the shutdown news from HP to a readership stunned at the prospects of fewer tomorrows.
For some of our readers, HP's intentions of almost 19 years ago mattered little. Their companies were always going to follow their own counsel and were devoted to a full return on their 3000 investment. Many more had careers derailed or sidetracked, saw fortunes dwindle, made plans for different tomorrows.
The NewsWire was never built to become a massive operation with offices, staff, and benefits. Things were lean enough in the Nineties that no one here carried health insurance. Organizing for a small footprint—though not so small that healthcare didn't ever arrive here—gave us a plan for survival long term. Here at the end of 25 years of publishing, 20 of those years have unfurled in the shadow of HP's certain departure from 3000 life.
Those earliest months when we could believe in HP's 3000 faith were still tinged with wry, sometimes dark comedy. Citizen Kane is a favorite film here, and we'd often quote one of its lines at each other when times got tough. Kane is replying to his trust manager when he's asked why he'd want to buy the New York Examiner. "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper," Kane said.
It's been fun. We look forward to more, bolstered by support from companies with a long-term view of 3000 usefulness, like Pivital Solutions. We have enjoyed support from readers and owners and veterans of the 3000 world, too. Here's to a fresh quarter-century, however it looks. The Tampa Bay Rays are looking like a good prospect to get into the World Series, winning on a pittance of a payroll. Little things that are built smart can surprise you with their ability to be good every day.