Friday, August 23, 2013

Joy of HP Calculators

In the not-too-distant past, Hewlett-Packard was the world's leader in scientific and technical calculators. There was something magical about opening a fresh shrink-wrapped box containing more computing power and productivity in the latest hand-held device than was in many of the IBM mainframes of the time. Hewlett-Packard was way ahead of the technology curve in those days, and quality was the name of their very special game.

My love for programming began with several HP programmable calculator models, from the HP-25C up to the HP-67. A few years later I was lucky enough to program a 9825 desktop calculator to control and monitor several of the world's largest solar energy fields. HP's quality and advanced productivity calculators never let me down, and it was such a joy to single-handedly control square miles of heliostats and photovoltaic trackers while other companies, using much more cumbersome mini-computers, required teams of programmers to accomplish the same results.

Today, on a shelf behind my desk, there's a box full of just about every Hewlett-Packard hand-held programmable calculator ever sold. However, my most recent purchase is now about a dozen years old. What happened?  My take on the situation is that management style changed over the years as the world's technology changed, and some paths were taken that, in the long run, has hurt HP's image of superior quality and leading-edge technology. The PC market forced major changes, and economical computers manufactured over seas were such an easy and safe target for the new, younger management style. Quality drooped, and today Hewlett-Packard fits in nicely with all the other companies. Their uniqueness has pretty much evaporated.

Calculators are still around. Texas Instruments and Casio filled the niche HP left wide open, and today just about every student and school system uses TI calculators. The market is still there, HP simply abandoned it by not taking it seriously.

Personally, I found myself programming other, non-HP devices over the years. My  first two books were collections of programs and subroutines for the TRS-80 and Casio FX-702P hand-held "computers". These were the first BASIC language hand-held devices, and they were a joy to work with too. The technology of the day limited their speed and capabilities, but the productivity of using BASIC made up for much of that.

Today, I'm excited about an imminent shift in direction at Hewlett-Packard!  They have announced a new calculator to be released to the public this fall, probably in the month of September. Finally, after all these years in the doldrums, at least some of the management at HP is in favor of bringing back what HP had in those golden years. The new HP Prime calculator appears to use the very latest technological advances to bring to market a superior product once again. The jury is still out on this, of course, but there's great hope in the air!

The HP Prime has lots of memory, is hundreds of times faster than recent calculators, has a full-color touch screen plus a set of HP's signature tactile-feedback keys, it's easy to sync with a PC for efficient application development, and it is programmable in a powerful version of the BASIC language.

I'm sure management sees the educational market for this calculator, but I'm hoping everyone will be surprised by how much this type of device will once again enhance the engineering sector to accomplish great things. I'd be willing to bet there'll be an HP Prime on board the International Space Station within the year. I'll be getting one just as soon as I can, and I hope to write a book of programs and subroutines for it too. Stay tuned!

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