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February 2002

A better state of your computer’s union

NewsWire Editorial

Leaders can help us when they have vision to follow. That vision, however, can be colored by their perspective. Just a few nights ago the US President broadcasted his State of Union message, an annual event full of politics and proposals. By some coincidence, HP delivered a similar message one week earlier, broadcasting its version of the 3000’s future via the Web and telephone. At our house we didn’t remember to tune into the President’s speech. But we dialed up HP’s message to see how much help it was ready to offer in 3000 migration. We found a strong political content in the HP message, and a weak slate of assistance for its customers.

Instead of cutting directly to the technical help which migration-bound customers need, HP was compelled to remind them of their computer’s state. The message, delivered by general manager Winston Prather and supplemented by the Webcast host, told more than 500 sites that the 3000 was in a downward trend which HP believes cannot be reversed. HP had spent all of the last two months telling us how bad off its 3000 business had become, but that wasn’t enough. Getting a healthy chunk of customers on the phone, HP had to remind them again how hard it’s been for Hewlett-Packard to sell your computer.

After the President’s speech, the TV networks broadcast a reply from the opposing party. This year’s reply didn’t diverge much from the Bush message, given the gravity of the world’s security challenges. Think of what’s to follow as our reply to the HP vision of the 3000’s state. We may not be on national TV, but you can tune us out by turning the page if you disagree.

We disagree with HP’s conclusions about the 3000 market trends. The facts they have presented can’t be disputed, since sales figures for the system have always been a big secret. I’ve been asking for 17 years how well the computer is selling, and only occasionally got messages with hints about sales. I heard the last message less than a year ago from HP, when its marketing manager for the 3000 reported the new boxes were selling “better than expected.”

That report must have said more about HP’s expectations than 3000 sales, because in the few months since HP World the vendor’s perspective on things got bad enough to cause HP to quit on the system. You need to remember that the North American 3000 distributor continues to ship record numbers of the system since HP’s “we quit” announcement. Even that kind of success couldn’t keep HP in the game, they said, because of the trends they see.

What many of us know about trends is they can reverse themselves, sometimes unexpectedly. You can find proof in the stock market, a venture whose trends are forecast more closely than any other. After a trend of growth, suddenly the world’s economy hit the brakes last year. I’m not sure how the HP 3000 shipped in record numbers during that downturn, but it has. That’s why we remain hopeful about the computer’s future. If it’s selling in a bad economy, just imagine what it might do once the economic trends turn around. It’s beyond hope to think HP will do a turnaround.

Looking back at HP’s vision for your computer reveals a sales model that failed, not a product unfit for business. More than a decade ago HP took a turn toward reseller-based computer sales, to save money on the expense of a sales force. It worked for its printers, after all. That was about the time many of you stopped seeing an HP salesperson, and instead got a phone call or a letter about your new reseller. You did get that letter, didn’t you?

In the same era HP made the 3000 known for its differences, and not in a good way. For years it was known as The Computer That Is Not Unix. It’s all history now, but important to remember as HP talks about trends away from proprietary computers. HP started those trends. Now the end result is the company cannot sell as many 3000s as it wants to in large enterprise IT shops, because of a lack of applications. Who could blame app providers for leaving under such duress?

That history doesn’t change anything for the customer who finds their 3000 useful, efficient and extraordinary — because they don’t have to replace it often or feed it money like other platforms. Infrequent sales are bad news for HP, though, and so they chose to step out of the efficient computing business.

This also does not change your ownership picture, not as much as HP wants you to believe it does. Without HP there are no patches, no official support, and soon no new systems with an HP badge. But there is still a 3000 community, and it will remain and thrive well beyond HP’s interest in its success. Support is already there. Patches are something most savvy IT managers avoid. All that’s left are new systems. Yes, someone wants to build those.

I am watching with wonder at how the faithful have assembled just the right model to further the system’s future. OpenMPE has managed to collect a powerful board of directors and a business model — the mutual insurance company — that fits the computer’s mission: Be less complex and demand a lower cost of ownership. The board has application experience in large and small ISVs, HP experience, utility vendor experience — even several folks who could ably run a lab of top-rank MPE engineers, because they already have. You buy insurance for your computer’s success, rather than feed a profit center for a big corporation.

I believe what’s left for HP to do is the right thing for the customers who supported the vendor with billions of dollars over the last 30 years. And that is to put the HP-written 3000 code and hardware nuances in the hands of the customers who believe in it. Their vision has never wavered, even when HP’s did. It’s hardly fair for HP to consider itself the best judge of what’s best for its customers while it walks away from thousands of them. But life isn’t fair, and we must bear the injustices as best we can — even when they’re served up with marketing panache, like billing customers for Web training on how to migrate to other HP computers. We hope that scheme gets the response that it deserves.

HP has underestimated the response its customers spat out for this departure from the community. The division still considers themselves the good guys. Good people do remain in the HP 3000 division, though fewer every week. It’s a diminishing resource, one the community can replace if HP does the Right Thing for MPE. This month we’re plugging in an Open Mike column into the NewsWire, our first regular Guest Editorial space. Use it to report the state of your computer’s union, the community’s alliance of value and stability, delivered from a perspective which HP can no longer see. Give them the vision to do that Right Thing.

— Ron Seybold 

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