|The HP-33S and those evil MBAs|
Message #1 Posted by Dave Hicks on 5 Oct 2003, 1:55 p.m.
I haven't had time to read the 33s thread below until today. I didn't get a lot of sleep last night so please excuse me if I ramble.
A few thoughts on HP Calculators
I wonder why its OK to "stand still" with the calculator for business, but engineering calculators shall be discontinued?
It's funny because I used to ask questions that were nearly the opposite of this - ie Is the inability to replace the 12C an indication that HP isn't willing to put a great deal of R&D into a new business model? That doesn't seem likely though because there were some nice later models, which didn't last as long. Really it seems the most likely answer to me is that the 12C is the defacto standard and people just keep buying it no matter what. This is much more a statement of HP's customers than HP I think. While some may like to make fun of MBAs, they are probably the ones keeping the 12C alive simply by putting their money where their mouth is and paying for a (relatively) expensive calculator in large numbers.
A few years ago I got a call from United Airlines. They wanted to get rid of a bunch of never claimed calculators in their lost and found. When I pressed for details, they told me they had 400 HP 12Cs - and nothing else. Now some might turn this into an MBA joke but I think it says more about sheer numbers and the fact that so many 12C owners are pulling their calculators out on planes and using them. (Which probably sold a few more to the people in adjacent seats. By contrast HP techy calculators have seen much more stealthy in the last decade.)
A lot of people are upset and/or sad at the recent state of HP calculators. However, blaming Carly Fiorina and/or MBAs seems a little misguided to me. At most, I think they are a symptom of the general US (and world) business trends of outsourcing, globalization, and maximization of profits with no other thoughts. I'm not entirely comfortable with this myself, but.....
I happened to be at a party recently with HP employees who used to work on various calculators. Even among such insiders, what happened to HP's calculator group is a matter of debate and mystery. One theory that I found rather plausible and compelling went like this:
HP had at one point moved its PDAs to Singapore. The head of the Singapore division made a great deal of effort to pull calculators into his sphere as well and eventually he succeeded. In the past, this has been seen as a mistake because calculators quickly lost focus while PDAs got all the attention. However, there's another "insider" theory that Singapore saw HP's calculators as a threat to their PDA line all along. They lobbied to get calculator design and production transferred to them so they could kill it. Of course, this is a classic model of business - if a little competitor is causing you some grief - buy them and phase out the "troublesome" products. (You might blame MBAs for such thinking but I've seen engineer-turned-managers do the same thing.)
Since then, calculators have bounced around HP. Each manager has had big plans to try to revive them but found it easier said than done. For one thing, most of the people who developed the original software base moved on. On the business side, surely HP wanted to see serious profits is short order. I had the same problem at my previous employer. They wanted my division to spew forth new businesses. They wanted each new business to become at least a billion dollar a year business within 6-18 months. Gee, what do you know, 99.9% of everything proposed got cancelled. Some in the Powerpoint phase, and some after years of development. It's just not so easy to turn out those billion dollar businesses. The interesting thing is that while some people want to blame MBAs for everything, my company was run by engineers. It was simple engineering logic that declared those non-billion dollar businesses to not be worthwhile.
I think some of us old(ish) engineers also have to allow for the fact that the educational market rather than engineering now probably drives calculator development. Sadly, the basic black device that functions forever may now loose to the fashion statement. As Luca suggested, there are cell phones with far more bizarre keypads that people seem to enjoy buying, (For some reason :-))
About the forum
I typically keep very "hands-off" on this forum. Recently I've gotten a couple of emails about the "flame level" of the forum. Spirited debate about a new calculator is great and there are a lot of great comments about potential usability issues with this model (some of which may or may not disappear after you use one for a few minutes.) I too think it looks weird but then so does my cell phone and by current standards my cell phone is one of the least weird. Did someone mention rotary dials? Check this one out:
Does this one even have a keypad?
What I would like to avoid however is calling people mentally retarded, or blaming entire classes of people for everything we don't like about a new model. And while a lot of people like to blame HP's current CEO for a lot of things (many of which may be true) I'm not sure that she can really take the blame on this one. They took the LEDs out a long time before she got there, and the "organizational issues" alluded to earlier also greatly predated her. People were complaining about the "bizarre" green and purple color scheme of the 48G (which tested so well in its target educational market) years before Carly got there. (Check out the comments on design choices from a long-time HP designer.) Maybe you can blame her for not recovering HP's calculator business but I think it's much harder to recover than to maintain so why aren't we giving her predecessors at least some of the blame?