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The HP-33S and those evil MBAs - Printable Version

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The HP-33S and those evil MBAs - Dave Hicks - 10-05-2003

Hi Everyone,

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?

I guess you are right, Dave. - Norm - 10-05-2003

I guess you are right, Dave. It is not helpful to elevate posts to "flame" status, not even over the "Chevron" HP-33S.

I apologize for encouraging a chat board war now that HP has hit new lows. As to HP-33S, it will be enough to simply not buy one.

This still leaves us w/o a useful HP engineering calculator in production, however.

Surely we could solve this once and for all, by getting the HP calculator products moved over to Agilent? Agilent still has the proper scientific-community outlook. They would treat calculators properly, not like some sort of cheap PDA or gimmicky cell-phone, as has now been done with the calculators.

Doesn't even one of us know any of these boardroom people, and point out what must be done?

Agilent thoughts - Dave Hicks - 10-05-2003

I think you'd start at Agilent. Unless there's some kind of non-compete clause that I don't know about, they don't need HP's blessing to enter the calculator market. So I think you'd start by making a case to them. I just looked at Agilent's financials at yahoo and they're loosing money so I think they're going to want to see how this can make them some. On the plus side, they're a much smaller company than HP (less than 1/10th the revenue) so the calculator business could get more attention there.

Some things to think about are whether this is really a move, or simply Agilent going on it's own. Or perhaps Aglient operating as HP's OEM? I think the latter has the most potential because unless you're going for a very high end / low quantity market, I don't think there's a lot of retail shelf space for another brand. I could be wrong about that though. Back in "my day" we used to buy calculators at the nearest university bookstore or mail order from EduCALC. These days I think they're mostly sold at places like Office Depot and Frys but I could be wrong.

A while back I proposed (very casually) the idea of a "Swiss Watch HP42S". Basically take the 42S design, add a few updates (maybe a serial port or a flash card slot or even HP-IL), and then package it in something like a titanium case with a synthetic sapphire (scratch resistant) screen. Sell it as a super tank/serious calculator (but with the subtle hinting of a little status too.)

When I proposed that someone said something like "Yeah! I'd pay $150 for that!" Trouble is I was thinking more like $400-$600. But that was just my imagination. I have no idea how much it would have to cost or how many you could sell.

Re: I guess you are right, Dave. - Gordon Dyer - 10-05-2003

I am going to buy one, insert some Nokia electronics into it and hold it to my ear on the train whilst talking very loudly!

Re: The HP-33S and those evil MBAs - Massimo Gnerucci (Italy) - 10-05-2003

Very well said Dave!
I particularly like this sentence:

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.

This is the best forum I ever happened to follow; here I met many wonderful, helpful friends.

I hate when common interests are buried by opinions carried over and over with an ever increasing rate of unkindness the way you could expect when dealing with politics, your favourite team, The Best Operating System etc.

Thanks for calming down the riot,

Thanks Mr. Hicks - Chris(FLA) - 10-05-2003

This is the best forum I ever happened to follow; here I met many wonderful, helpful friends.

I totaly agree with you on this Massimo. I come to this forum to relax and learn from everyone something I don't already know, and I have learned quite a bit.

The tone and respect everyone shows here is amazing and most welcome. Unlike what you see on that "thing" that works with NNTP. Thank you everyone, and....

Thank you Mr. Dave Hicks for allowing me to participate in such an enjoyable and relaxing venue.


Re: Agilent thoughts - Eric Lundgren - 10-06-2003

I really like the idea of a 'skunk works' calculator. I can imagine the familiar case of a 42sii but in gun metal or titanium...it'd be a no-frills deal, programmable, no graphing screen, maybe a sd card like Dave said, and it would cost a (0.5)(paycheck). 400 dollars isn't that outrageous if this is the curtious union of say a 42s, 41cx, 32sii...a discrete looking powerhouse that would never be found on ebay 10 years from now as no one would part with it.

Only frills go out of style with time.

Glad to have a place to read about HPs by HP fans.