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August 2003

Three trades, two firings, but no future

NewsWire Editorial

We love sports at my house. Abby and I spend many happy hours talking about baseball, reading about basketball, sitting at games. Between those two sports there’s always something playing out, although July can be a lean month for meaningful stories. This past sporting month, however, felt like that fateful November in 2001 when your 3000 community was full of news, little of it good. Sometimes when things get different in a hurry, it can take a bloodhound to uncover why they’re a-changin’.

Longer than my partnership with my gal, and even outlasting my coverage of the 3000, stands my support of the baseball team in Cincinnati, a few hours by car from where I grew up. The Reds have given me more than a few great seasons, and others to endure. Last month the team began to look like it was reading off the HP 3000 history pages as it tried to turn around a losing season.

The last week of July has become important in baseball, as crucial as any end of year closing in a 3000 customer’s accounting department. Late July is also about money in baseball. That’s when teams that abandon their chance of winning can be seen firing and dumping management and players. Those are a pair of moves your community is facing this year. I can only hope you’ve got more of a future planned out than the Reds’ brain trust.

Before lunchtime on the week’s first day, the ownership fired the team’s general manager and its manager. That’s like giving the ax to the CEO and the president of a company on the same day. In the Reds’ funhouse, both of these fellows knew their demise might be near, though. They’d been playing a bad hand dealt to the team by poor management of payroll, and a wallet snapped tighter than a preacher’s top collar button on a Sunday morning. Things weren’t working out in Cincinnati, but the top management had much more to do with the losses than anybody who got canned on the first day.

You saw something like this in your community, when years of soft-selling and underfunding in R&D came home to roost in HP’s 3000 business. Like that baseball GM and the Reds’ manager, customers were expecting HP to fail on the 3000’s behalf. The flurry of development that started with GM Harry Sterling’s term was late. HP’s embrace of the Itanium technology came even later. We don’t even have to talk about recruiting and maintaining software partners for MPE, do we?

So the oldest head in HP’s computer lineup rolled in November of 2001, though nobody expected the move at that time. Hadn’t HP just introduced the N-Class for the 3000? Wasn’t that merger, with its product purges a certain second act, still months away? No matter. Your system got fired from HP’s organization, with a five-year severance.

Firing can be a blessing, sometimes. It can let an organization start fresh, with new ideas. Even those that get the boot can find better ways to advance, kicked loose from obsolete structures. If the 3000 got fired by HP, well, the community could always gather itself and move on without the second-biggest vendor in the world. HP was a lot smaller when the 3000 was most successful. When I started covering HP in 1984 — a pretty good year for the computer — you could call up just six PR reps for the company and get news on just about anything HP made.

Some of the 3000’s customers didn’t even let the firing affect them. One part of the community already was moving away from the 3000. They can’t use a computer the vendor won’t back with its full resources. These sites believe in HP’s future for computing, and they want to be part of what’s being called the Adaptive Infrastructure.

For these sites, seeing their platform get the ax was like us Reds fans watching a GM and manager get fired after a team lost a lot of games and fell out of the race for the playoffs. The system wasn’t working for these customers the way they planned anymore: no vendor support, no development for the latest technology. Like these customers, us Reds fans could understand and accept the new direction. Better field leadership might give us hope. An HP at last savvy to market forces could give some hope to an IT manager who’d watched the company boot the MPE ball some time ago.

Like the HP 3000 customers, though, us Reds fans watched insult heaped upon our losses. On the next three days the team traded away its best hitter, its only All-Star, and the most dependable pitcher. In return the Reds got some prospects, and of course, cash. Reds fans are now red-hot, as angry as 3000 customers who saw their future cut off with no warning at all.

The realities of small-market computer platforms and small-market baseball are not that different. The Reds owners didn’t have enough faith to dip into the red for a few years and borrow to build a team of the future. HP made a similar decision about the 3000 a couple of summers ago, while it cooked up its merging future.

Nobody expects HP to change its mind about the mistake it made over the HP 3000. But there remain some things the company can do now to make its mistake easier on its customers. Everybody, regardless of whether they’re homesteading or leaving the 3000, could benefit from these things, requests the customers have been making for a year.

Instead of telling customers they need to present a “business case” for these requests, HP just needs to do the right thing now, while it can make a difference. Rather than trade away the top hitter, the vendor can give the older development machines a little more life by making MPE/iX 7.0 run on them. The release used to run on 9x7s. Make it do so again, and stop trading away months of time for weeks of sales. Instead of focusing on how many will buy systems from HP in just 10 more weeks, it’s time to think of the customers’ future.

Like the Reds’ best pitcher, the power in the A-Class systems doesn’t need any more impassioned customer pleas in order to be set free. Let those computers run as fast as they can when sales end on Oct. 31. Nobody’s earlier purchase at an higher price point kept HP from offering a better deal to later-buying customers. Slowing down a computer you don’t sell any more is as silly as selling off the pitcher who closes out the game for the win every night.

HP shouldn’t be tempted to trade out its MPE support business, simply by letting that resource go to seed and cutting costs for cash. Customers are already doing their own firings, giving HP the gate when they see how much the support help has declined. This isn’t about to turn around, so it’s time to get serious about empowering the independent businesses who are backing HP’s customers already. Internal documentation and SS_CONFIG aren’t going to have any value to an HP wrapped up in Adaptive Infrastructure. Let these things flow to the customers instead of keeping them locked behind legal vaults.

The fans of MPE, whose investment in HP’s RISC was often powered by faith in the future, don’t deserve to see this All-Star of an environment kept out of the OpenMPE lineup any longer, either. It’s tough out there in the business world, and nobody’s predicting a rapid rebound. Give the 3000 experts who are hungry for work this year something to build up again, and release that source code where it can do good for HP’s customers once more.

All of this comparison to sport may get tiresome for readers who don’t cheer at a slam dunk or follow a box score. The thing is, sport gives us winners, losers, human spirit and analysis — along with avarice, incompetence, and broken promises, on the bad days. Those sound to me like the elements of business, and so I reach for these allegories often.

This season is over in Cincinnati — perhaps the next one beyond that, as the owners struggle toward doing the right thing for fans whose tax money helped build a stunning new park there this year. But the season of hope for the 3000 community — those staying, and those who need more time to leave — isn’t over yet. It seems like a good trade: customer good will, for a real future for an open MPE, and maybe a purchase of an HP system to be named later.

— Ron Seybold

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