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An Ode to a Great Computer

By Birket Foster

I met my first HP 3000 in 1974 — it was love at first byte. For the past 30 years I have made a living helping my fellow 3000 buffs with various aspects of the platform. I have had the privilege of being able to grow a company and learn to run a business thanks to the kindness of the community. I got to travel and visit many people and companies and computer rooms all around North America and internationally. I tried to give back to the community with visits to regional user groups, where I got to tell tales of how technology was evolving.

The 3000 was successful because HP bundled the IMAGE database with it (for nearly all of the system’s history) and made it enormously reliable. HP had a team who believed in the 3000 and planted it deeply in many HP accounts. The loss will be painful for most but in time the “good old days” will seem archaic and the next generation of computing professionals will not even be aware that it existed.

Our community is going through the same emotions that owners of Studebakers must have felt when that car company went out of business. Once there were 400 car manufacturers in North America and then there were four, before Japanese firms got quality right and invaded. The economics of the market will catch up each wave of technology and the carnage and mergers take place.

The Interex user’s group has provided excellent advocacy, for those of us who can remember the 1990 meetings. That “Boston Tea Party” can attest to the fact that this group will not go quietly into the night. We speak our mind and hold our ground. I remember having a conversation with former Interex executive director Chuck Piercey, a time when he explained the grand plan of HP was to move customers to commodity computing platforms. I asked him, “What is the role of a vendor-specific user’s group in the world of open systems?” Apparently that question impressed him enough to put it up on a wall in his office. We both came from that time before the Internet, where it was necessary for folks to get together in groups (locally and at the annual conferences) to exchange information, views, ideas and dreams to advance the understanding and use of computing.

The Contributed Software Library (CSL) was perhaps the first freeware. It contains the basis of many products and provided great value for money to Interex members. Many of the contributors also provided the volunteer labor to catalog, and organize the collections on the CSL. It was a badge of honor to have your software on the CSL.

The SIGs and the RUGs provided a place for people to get and give advice. We had wonderful technical discussions with passion and respect. From these exchanges grew the Systems Improvement Ballot and such proposals like SIG-IMAGE’s Enchilada. We got a better platform with all the trimmings through the efforts of hundreds. We had our own Bill Gates, this one at Long’s Drugs, who was busy rolling out a 3000 into each of the chain’s 200-plus stores. We had customers like Denys Beauchemin, who worked on the first PA-RISC machines at Northern Telecom when the press talked about RISC-ing your company with HP’s new architecture.

It was a market of names. We had Alfredo Rego, Alfredo to all of us, who toured tirelessly and then gave us the opportunity to follow his efforts in organizing the first Guatemalan Olympic ski team. We had Bob Green, whose humor helped many a lecture on dry subjects like “How Messy is Your Database?” We had Fred White, the father of IMAGE — who, when the equivalent to being stationed at an Alaska radar system happened to him (he was relegated to writing HP accounting systems as his new job in HP), he joined Alfredo’s team at Adager.

I had the great experience of helping build an Interex conference in San Antonio, Texas with Terry Floyd, Jane Copeland, Tipton Cole, Larry Van Sickle, Ken Lessey, Kim Leeper and team in 1982. Not long after, we had Ron Seybold as the editor of the HP Chronicle, who later founded the NewsWire with his partner Abby Lentz. (Ron, we will have to write the book on this market of names.) There are a large number of stories and background — too many for me to write about here.

We had some great parties at HP World. Who can forget the days when WRQ rented Wet ‘n Wild and we all went out for a night of fun in Las Vegas. Today’s conference events seem shorter, and just don’t have the same feel. I wonder, is it that we are older, or do the sponsors today (like Oracle, Cisco, Microsoft and BEA) know this is a rounding error in their promotion budgets? Maybe they don’t have the same passion for mingling with the customers.

HP has changed. I understand it’s not as much fun to work there anymore. I don’t know what is being invented, but patents probably are not the best way to measure the impact of R&D on the world around us. It can’t just be about being the biggest with the most — you have to care about the customers. In the world of open systems you win and lose customers one at a time through the actions of organizations. I would like to thank Interex for providing a framework to have all these experiences we taken the time to enjoy.

Thank you to all the people I have met along the way, who had faith in me and the solutions my team was delivering at the time. To those who have helped me out, I hope I helped you back. After Oct. 31, the 3000 will no longer be on the HP price list, but the spirit and memories will live on, and be renewed by the many companies who got their start in computing in this market. I will see you in Chicago at HP World 2004 — I think you will like the new “open platform” technology we have been building for the past six years. Maybe I’ll scan all those pictures I took and give away a CD. Thanks for the memories.

Birket Foster is founder of HP Platinum migration partner MB Foster, and chairman of the SIG-Softvend Special Interest Group, and sits on the OpenMPE board.

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