A Little Bit of HP History
(from an outsider's view)
From Jake Schwartz, <email@example.com>
Roughly in 1993 at the time when the HP48GX was released, the calculator R&D was in the process of being transferred from Corvallis to Singapore. At this point it seemed that the Singapore people wished to include the Corvallis folks in their efforts, and thus they used a combined team of developers from both locations to design the HP38G. An attempt was made to crack the high- school market with this machine, and my understanding was that only a handful of HP individuals were assigned the task of educating the teachers about the merits of the 38. This paled in comparison to the literally hundreds of TI folks who had been doing the same thing for a handful of years. As a result, the 38 seemed to go virtually unnoticed in comparison to the massive TI effort which has succeeded in making their graphing models ubiquitous in the school market. Meanwhile, the HP calculator zealots wrote the HP38G off as a failed attempt to be like the others and we continued playing with our HP48G-series toys.
In 1995, the U.S. HP Handheld User's Conference was held in Minneapolis, and HP Singapore's Kheng Joo Khaw (then head of palmtops and calculators) was there to speak on current HP affairs. He mainly was talking about the advent of the Windows CE units, and how HP had decided that they should use a "standard" windowing O.S. in order to make any headway in the growing handheld market. (This was despite a successful run with the DOS-based HP 95/100/200LX models.) When we asked him about calculators and what would happen next, he indicated that calculators were not their current focus.
One year later, at the 1996 HP Handheld Conference in Anaheim, Khaw was there again, speaking on palmtops and we asked again about the destiny of calculators. And again, he said that they felt that calculators didn't need to be updated at this time, and when they did, there would be some activity in that area. He even went as far to say that the HP48G-series was already too complicated and that it intimidated people, so he saw no need to extend the high end. We felt at that time that effectively, calculators were as good as dead at HP. (I shot the videotapes from these conferences if anyone is interested.)
In June of 1997, our Philadelphia Area HP Handheld Club (still going since 1978) hosted HP's Eric Vogel (who worked on handheld products since 1976). He had recently switched from Corvallis to an instrumentation group which developed the handheld Logic Dart. At the end of his enlightening 4-hour presentation, we asked him about his thoughts on whether there might be another top-of-the-line calculator from Hewlett-Packard. Eric was convinced that the calculator world had seen it's heyday and it was time to move on, considering what could be done on any PC on anybody's desk these days. It was sort of a bittersweet moment...we understood his point of view but didn't really want to believe it.
The Summer went by and the British HPCC group hosted their Fifteenth Anniversary conference in London in September of 1997, also denoting the 25th birthday of the HP35. Something different happened there...it was announced that a new calculator team would be forming officially on November 1st in Australia. Apparently the Singapore group really *wasn't* going to do anything, so this new band of developers asked and got the go-ahead to take the effort over. It was precisely at this event when the Australians first met the Meta Kernel team and also saw demonstrations of MK, Erable and ALG48 for the very first time. Obviously this weekend made a significant impression. Following these demos, Richard Nelson asked for a show of hands as to how many people would be willing to buy an HP48 which contained these tools built into ROM. Of course, the vast majority voted in the affirmative.
It was realized then that the ACO group would be on their own, having to prove themselves without the benefit of any other related existing products which already represented a stream of income for them.
Back at home, we began to speculate on how the new group (consisting mainly of people who were not from the old Corvallis team) could make their mark. I speculated that a "ready", "set", "go" approach might allow them to ease their way into the industry. The HP48G+ was their first product - and truly, this could represent ACO's "dipping its toe into the water". Then the HP6S - a completely new but entry-level unit - followed. And now, they have announced their intentions of releasing the HP49G. (True, over the past quarter-century HP has always said that they don't talk about unannounced products, so this is a major departure.) With all the firmware overhauling which was described in Jean-Yves Avenard's descriptive posting, this is pretty amazing, considering that the team has only been together a year and a half!
Knowing that ACO absolutely MUST generate revenue in order to stay in business, it makes sense that they would chase a larger market in which they previously haven't had a significant presence. In addition, I think that the message which we tried to impose on the ACO people in London - that these calculators still matter very much to professionals as well as students - did sink in. Just like actors who must first work day-to-day jobs to make ends meet at the beginnings of their careers, so too must ACO put cash into its coffers in order to afford the freedom to develop the kind of machines we would prefer to use. Let's hope that the 49G is a stepping stone to The Next Big Thing.