Monday, January 02, 2012

Computer Wars, Now and Then

This Christmas, my wife received not one, but two tablet computers—an iPad and a Nook—from gift-givers who obviously did not coordinate their purchases. It’s too early to tell which, if either, will win her attention, affection, and devotion, which is always the goal when companies introduce new products. But at least no one gave her a TouchPad.

The TouchPad, for those of you who, like myself, were too engaged on other matters to notice, was HP’s attempt to crack the tablet-computer market. Released last July, the device used an operating system called WebOS that HP acquired when it bought the smartphone developer Palm. But according to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, the TouchPad was an example of too little, too late in a number of ways.

Users quickly found that the WebOS, or something, made the TouchPad’s speed resemble molasses in January compared to its competitors, mainly the Apple iPad OS and Google’s Android. This and the fact that the slew of programs that HP expected developers to produce for the machine failed to materialize, led the firm to announce only seven weeks after the TouchPad’s introduction that it was going to discontinue manufacturing all WebOS devices. Although it has since announced one more production run of the TouchPad, this is thought mainly to be for the purposes of clearing out inventory and meeting unmet obligations to large customers.

Playing catch-up is hard in any game, and especially so in the rapidly moving world of software and novel information and communications technologies such as tablet computers. The fifteen months between April of 2010, when Apple began selling the iPad, and July 2011 might as well have been a decade in more staid industries. And even if HP’s device had been simply a hardware knockoff and used the iPad OS (which Apple would have allowed only if the Indian Ocean froze over), the lead enjoyed by Apple and Google would have made for problems for HP. Add in the totally novel WebOS, which was so new that HP had a lot of trouble finding programmers who could work in it, and you had a disaster in the making.

I was once on the receiving end of a similar situation, though it moved in comparative slow motion because it took place thirty years ago. IBM (remember them?) introduced its personal computer in 1981, and inspired a similar mad rush on the part of other computer makers to come up with rivals for the then-burgeoning PC market. One logical candidate to win the race was the Digital Equipment Corporation of Maynard, Mass., which had shown IBM a thing or two with its PDP line of mini-computers. Back when an IBM mainframe needed the floor space (and air conditioning) of a small house, you could stow a PDP-8 in a couple of relay racks the size of a large closet. So you’d think DEC would know how to out-hardware IBM.

DEC tried, and the result was a thing called the Pro-350. It looked more or less like an IBM PC, only it ran some software that DEC had cooked up on their own. And to use it, you had to either write your own software or wait for programmers to write some and buy it from them. At the time I was a young assistant professor and knew that I needed some kind of a computer. I asked the advice of another professor in my department, who I later learned used to work for DEC. He said for me to buy a Pro-350, and I’d never regret it.

Let us say merely that he turned out to be a false prophet. I spent a good chunk of my start-up research money on that Pro-350. Because I could program in FORTRAN back then, I was able to write a few programs and run them on the thing (it had a FORTRAN compiler that worked halfway decently). But as other people started to buy word processing software, spreadsheet software, and other pre-packaged applications for their new IBM PCs, I was stuck with either writing my own FORTRAN for these things, which was as ridiculous as building my own laboratory building to do research in, or waiting for versions that would run on the Pro-350 to come onto the market. I’m still waiting.

I wound up using the thing as a terminal to get into the department’s mainframe for a few years, but eventually I bought a Mac at home and the world was never the same after that. DEC struggled on for another decade or so by mainly maintaining its fleet of aging computers for former customers, and was bought by Compaq (which is now itself history) in 1998.

The lesson here, if there is one, is that if you’re going to compete in the consumer electronics business with something new, you’d better be first with something that works really well, or else you’re probably wasting your time and money. As I said, it’s too early to tell whether the Nook or the iPad will win out here at our household. But so far, the iPad has worked flawlessly, whereas I had to spend a couple of hours twiddling with our wireless network after my wife spent even more time trying to get her Nook to see our base station before we could get it to connect. Not a promising start for the Nook in 2012.

Sources: The New York Times article on the TouchPad appeared online at I also referred to Wikipedia articles on the TouchPad, the iPad, and DEC.

1 comment:

  1. Pity DEC didn't have the sense to peddle their PDP-8/S microcomputers to hobbyists back at the end of the 1960's. They could have been in the position of Altair and MIT, or even Adam Osborne -- ten years earlier, and might be running the world today. Sigh!

    There must be a decent SF novel in that notion ...