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Remember Compaq? - and other blasts from the past

May 2002 This is an occasional column by Zsolt Kerekes
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It's official, on May 6, 2002 HPstarted trading on the NYSE as HPQ, and Compaq is now part of the engrossed HP. So "Compaq" is another word you'll be using a bit less often in the future, and can soon safely forget.
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Try... It's actually quite hard to deliberately forget something. Compaq... Compaq... Compaq...

Does it keep coming back? Well whatever, Compaq may have meant to you in the past, your memory will eventually make space for some new ideas to fit into that old Compaq space.

Compaq... Compaq... Compaq... It keeps coming back, but it won't last all day. Trust me.

I'm not going to dwell in this article on what Compaq achieved, or what the merger will do for the storage market. That's all been analysed before, and much of the speculation is going to be wrong anyway. Instead I'm going to reflect on just how easy it is for the name of a significant computer company to disappear without trace. That'll help you get "Compaq" out of your system, and if you're an older reader (like me) you may actually have come across some of these names below in real life, and not just in a text book or marketing case study. This is meant to be fun and not really serious. But do these names mean anything to you?

Burroughs? Osborne? Data General? Imprimis? Apollo? Digital Equipment?

Well let me remind you, from my own memory, which may be faulty, just who they were.

Burroughs used to be the world's #2 maker of mainframes back in the 1970's. There used to be an acronym to help you remember IBM's mainframe rivals. It was the "BUNCH" for Burroughs, Univac, NCR, CDC and Honeywell. Burroughs and Univac merged into Unisys, and then kept very quiet, hoping that no one would cause them any trouble. (That's a different idea of stealth marketing to that which we see nowadays in many new VC funded startups. It's kind of a post marketing peak stealth mode. Find a few vertical markets where you are well known, then dig in and hope no one else comes round to take them away.)

Osborne was a publishing company in the mid to late 1970's which did reference books on newly emerging microprocessors. The same Osborne then launched the world's first Intel based portable PC. That was before Compaq, and before Microsoft became an operating systems company. The Osborne PC used the #1 Intel operating system of its day:- called CP/M. I don't think Osborne survived much longer than CP/M.

Data General was a minicomputer manufacturer in the 1970's which was #2 to Digital Equipment. Their design of the Eclipse range using AMD's bit-slice (4 bit) microprocessor technology was immortalised in the book "Soul of a New Machine." In those days, bit-slice gave you a slight performance edge over ready made chips from Intel, Motorola etc, but the lego like building blocks hit a technical and architectural dead-end when companies like LSI Logic made it easy and cheap for anyone (like Sun) to design their own completely customised single chip RISC processor in low to medium volumes. One of Data General's brands still lives on in the Clariion, which was acquired by EMC.

Imprimis. I put Imprimis in this list, because I thought we should actually have a storage company. Imprimis ws the short lived name given to the disk drive operation at CDC. It was spun off as a separate company sometime in the late 1980's and made the fastest 8" and 5.25" drives. It was then acquired by Seagate, who carried on the tradition of making the fastest drives in popular form factors.

Apollo was the #1 workstation company in the mid 1980's. But it used its own proprietary operating system instead of Unix. The company was acquired by HP, which also had a sizable workstation business. In the busy period which followed the Apollo acquisition by HP, and while people were still doing the new organisation charts and rearranging the deck chairs, little old Sun Microsustems came along and blew them all away. By the time HP recovered in the workstation market, a decade later, there wasn't really a workstation business any more, and Sun had transformed into something more difficult to ignore.

Digital Equipment (which everyone called "DEC", but which liked to call itself "Digital") was the #1 minicomputer maker in the 1980's. In fact the first edition of Unix and the C programming language were developed on DEC hardware. DEC had an idea that it could ignore the IBM PC when that came along, and that it could ignore Unix too. Unfortunately, for DEC, both were cheaper than its own offerings, and both were eventually faster too. DEC confused and alienated its server customers by lots of bad decisions, false starts and dead ends. But meanwhile another part of the company had developed a well respected and fast multi-platform storage family called StorageWorks. DEC was acquired by Compaq in the mid 1990's, and gave the company a very bad case of indigestion. The StorageWorks brand is still, at the time of writing, probably the best legacy still surviving from the older company.

And now after our trip down memory lane, we return to the subject of Compaq itself, which if you remember, we are trying hard to forget...

How will we remember Compaq in 10 years or so, using the brutally short style I've used for these other companies?

Well, here's a possible summary, circa 2010.

Compaq designed the first IBM compatible portable in the early 1980's and showed that Wintel compatibility was the important factor for success on the desktop. You didn't have to buy an overpriced PC from IBM after all. But then Dell came along and showed that you didn't have to buy an overpriced Wintel PC or server from Compaq either. Then Compaq was acquired by another company which made storage and printers. I think that company was called HP. HP later split into two parts which are now known as...

You see. It's easier than you thought.

Did we get it right?

See also:- what I and other analysts wrote about the proposed HP-Compaq merger, back when it was first announced in September 2001

See also:- storage history, SPARC, Sun, Solaris history

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