Sunday, April 13, 2008

Presaging the PC revolution

"Our intent for the 9100 products was very clear.… We were a team of scientists and engineers who wanted to build personal computers for other scientists and engineers. The distinction of being the first mass-produced personal computer is merited by [either the 9100A or] the subsequent 9800 Series (that) predated the ALTAIR 8800 marketed in late 1974 …." Bill Hewlett, 1985 [i]

When the HomeBrew computer club first met in Palo Alto in 1975, self-congratulating later that its members alone foresaw the Personal Computer age, HP designers were askance – after all, they had shipped 77,000 self-contained “personal machines” far more capable than anything proposed at this assemblage of amateurs. They had specified the design criteria for the Intel 1103 memory chip, and subsequently bought and shipped nearly 40% of Intel’s memory capacity to their engineering customers for the intervening four years. Alan Kay has long acknowledged that the HP 9100A was the inspiration for his Dynabook, “the first personal computer”. Steve Wozniak’s autobiography comments that “before the Apple 1, all computers had hard-to-read front panels and no screens and keyboards. After Apple 1, they all did.” – a patently false claim since HP personal computers had featured screens and keyboards for seven years.[ii] Wozniak also wrote that “I didn’t really think of our (HP handheld) calculators as computers, though of course they were.” And HP had already sold nearly a half million of those handheld calculators, from the HP division in which Wozniak was employed. [iii]

"The interesting thing to observe about computers and computer technology is that the most significant changes people don't notice. For example, the hand calculator really was a revolution. No one predicted it, no one worried about it. It sneaked up on us and suddenly we all have them, we all use them, and we never thought of it as revolution. It just sneaked up on us." Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp[iv]

But perception is everything – and the world did not, and does not, perceive that HP was a leader in computing. Perhaps for HP lovers, this is positive – if HP had in fact been acknowledged as the original leader, the hue and cry about HP fumbling the future might be louder than it was for XeroxPARC.

[i] Gerald E. Nelson and William R. Hewlett, “The Design and Development of a Family of Personal Computers for Engineers and Scientists”, Insights into Personal Computers, Ed. Amar Gupta and Hoo-min D. Toong, IEEE Press, NYC, NY, 1985, p. 38
[ii] Wozniak, Steve and Gina Smith, IWoz, Norton Press, New York City, NY, 2006, p. 158.
[iii] Wozniak, Ibid, p. 124.
[iv] Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, oral interview, Digital Historical Collection Exhibit, interviewer David Allison, Division of Information Technology & Society, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, September 28, 29, 1988

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