HP is known for its excellent printers, half-assed computers, and more recently, piss poor customer service. The old HP laser printers were built like tanks. They may be slow and heavy, but they can take all sorts of abuse and keep running. I still have an old LaserJet II that's chugging into its 10th year of active duty.

An HP computer is a good choice if you're looking for an inexpensive machine to read email and surf the web. But woe unto he who tries to modify one. Their tech support web site is so slow it seems to be running on an HP48 calculator, and their support "engineers" seem to have been trained by AOL. I think I voided my warranty within a week of getting the thing. HP was the first (though not the last) company to make me use the phrase "I'm not asking you to support linux, I'm asking you to support your damn hardware!"

Known for a great line of test and measurement equipment for engineering and troubleshooting electronic components and systems. Spun off the test and measurement equipment division into Agilent in 1999.

An incredibly bloated company with very top-heavy management. Working for HP either as a contractor, consultant, or employee can be a flashback to the old style days of the military-industrial complex- with strict rate structures, lots of paperwork, and a whole bunch of people who sit around not doing very much.

Still, if you work for this company for any amount of time, it may be a refreshing breather from Silicon Valley's stress farm way of life. The HP way is one of treating your employee's non-work life with respect with lots of flex-time, telecommuting, and maternal leave. A warning though: the dilbert principle applies in full force here!
Hewlett-Packard, in an interesting move, recently bought back the california suburban garage where the company was started for several million dollars, to keep as a part of their company's heritage (and to use in advertising). William Hewlett recently died at the age of 87. He, and the late David Packard founded the company in 1938. Together in that Silicon Valley garage, they helped build one of the largest and most successful tech firms out there, and helped to establish Silicon Valley as the technical center that it is.

It was William Hewlett that gave Steve Jobs the start he needed with his first tech job. Steve called Mr. Hewlett at home, one day. The next, he had a job. Bill Gates looked up to him. The management and leadership style set by that company was widely recognised as pioneering, and has fathered a new generation of companies.

Today they are the recognized leader in desktop printing, while of recent trying to get into more "whiz bang" technology as one analyst on CNN a while ago put it. They are already a recognized name in PC sales (not as much so as Dell or Compaq, but still quite large), and in the Unix world as a major vendor. Their new ads reflect the invigoration of new ideas and practices into an old, yet still agile organization, something many companies try to achive, and many fail to maintain.

Sources: CNN, The New York Times
In 1938, two engineers named Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard with $538 between them, set-up shop in the now-famous garage at 329 Addison Avenue. Over the next 50 years, “The HP Way” would provide a blueprint for thousands of silicon-valley entrepreneurs. Their approach boiled down to basic ideas: by giving workers respect and autonomy, they would build innovative products that would contribute to society and generate big profits.

Back then, HP was a company run by engineers for engineers; their first big break came when they landed an order for a device called an audio oscillator to Disney to fine-tune the sound for Fantasia. The marketers and sales-force were irrelavent since it was purely high-tech products that drove HPs growth.

At the dawn of the electronic age in the 1950’s and 1960’s, HP offered several new kinds of instruments to help Electronic Engineers do their work. During that period, HP’s idea was to invest heavily in R&D to produce products that made a technical contribution – products that rivals could not match and customers would pay a high price to get. The company would also contribute to the communities in which it did business. Both Hewlett and Packard believed that their money was meant to be given away. Both men put more than 95% of their wealth into charity - they gave more than $300 million to Stanford University.

The HP-35 handheld scientific calculator was the company’s first consumer hit. In the early-seventies, thinking small was cutting-edge. The market-research firm they hired told them that they wouldn’t sell enough to make a profit but Hewlett believed that people would want something they could carry around. He also decided to keep the price low – instead of thousands the calculator only cost $395.

Aside form the HP-35, Hewlett and Packard didn’t want to mess with computers since it was such an unfamiliar business – instead of selling to subscribing engineers out of a catalogue it required an expensive, sophisticated sales-force to convince firms to commit to HP over competitors like IBM. That was the reason HP had passed when a low-level engineer named Steve Wozniak showed them a prototype of his user-friendly computer in 1975. (when he failed to garner interest from his immediate boss, Wozniak and his partner, Steve Jobs, used the idea to create Apple Computer.)*

Nonetheless, HP’s most successful business ever was linked to computers – printers. HP quickly cornered the printer market in 1984 with the release of the first LaserJet. By the late 80s ink-jet printers began to take off and HP made huge profits selling printers and high-margin ink-cartriges.

“You know the only thing worse than a shitty business? A big shitty business”* is what HP veterans claim Packard said after looking over a prototype of HP’s newer PCs. In fact they almost axed the division if not for the printer-division’s Bill Hackborn’s pleading. Slowly, the company began to strategize and re-focus on PCs. By 1995 the company was reaping benefits from the PC boom as companies and citizens alike began loading up on equipment.

In 1996, Packard died - more than one employee sent a good-bye note to his e-mail account. At his last general meeting, he read a poem called “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” by Oliver Wendell Holmes about a carriage, designed to never wear-out, that suddenly fell apart in a heap:

“You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once,
All at once, and nothing first,
Just as bubbles do when they burst

In 1997, the company began to miss its financial targets and scrambled for change. By 1999, they spun-off their traditional instruments business and called it Agilent. They also hired CEO Carly Fiorina. HP always subscribed to progressive hiring practices so it was not a stretch to have a female leader. Fiorina changed the traditional structure of the company, putting an emphasis on sales and marketing. She also undertook the controversial merger with Compaq Computer.

Bill Hewlett’s son, Walter, was rabidly against the merger since it expanded the unsuccessful computer business instead of focussing on printer business that was keeping the entire company afloat. Hewlett wasn’t the only one against the merger, analysts and industry experts agreed: “The visual I see is a slow-motion collision of two garbage trucks,”* said Sun Microsystem CEO Scott McNealy. Mild-mannered Hewlett eventually set-up a proxy-fight with HP, claiming that Fiorina unfairly influenced some shareholders in the board’s decision -- Hewlett lost.

The HP way was admirable and benefited and improved all who came in touch with it – customers, employees, investors and society at large. It is the opposite of the ruthless way we see many businesses moving forward today. Hopefully in the future, HP will go back to its roots of engineering and innovation and generosity.

Backfire, Peter Burrows, 2003

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