A Digression on Marketing

In my previous post on Larrabee I talked about the marketing of an ancient HP workstation. I ended with, “If anyone wants to confirm or deny, great!”

Followup from a reader: the story misses 3 additional changes to the machine. The more expensive business machine had: a bigger cabinet, more flashing lights on the front, and required 220 power. Apparently the business market wouldn’t take the machine seriously unless it required special power and wanted something with flashing lights so it looked more like a computer. The lights were completely random and the engineers wanted to hook them up so you could at least use them to see what was going on with the machine. And, no, the engineers didn’t win.

By the way, this isn’t meant as a diss against HP: I have two HP computers at home and love them, they make quality products. I’m just pointing out that even HP (which used to be known as the company that would market sushi by calling it “raw dead fish”) finds that marketing that contravenes rational thought is sometimes necessary. The “blinkenlights” story is a common theme, because it’s true. I recall an article (which I wish I had saved) from the early 90’s in the Wall Street Journal where people running the Social Security program were duped into thinking a computer company’s offerings were ready by being shown empty boxes with blinking lights inserted. “See, the computer is computing right now”. It was quite the scandal – front page news – when this ruse was uncovered.

Bonus quiz question: In researching (if you can call it that) this story, I ran across this site, which had an excellent question, “what was the world’s first personal computer?” Answer here. I was way wrong with the Altair. The answer, a computer I hadn’t heard of before, even bears on interactive computer graphics history, as it was the first computer experience for a famous graphics pioneer.

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  1. mattnewport’s avatar

    The HP story is a classic example of price discrimination and isn’t really an example of irrational marketing so much as rational profit maximization. You see an awful lot of examples of price discrimination in the computer industry.

  2. François Bertel’s avatar

    You can apply the story about HP to nVidia for their marketing difference between a GeForce and a Quadro chipset. You can even turn a GeForce into a Quadro with the following Soft-Mod technique: http://www.techarp.com/showarticle.aspx?artno=539

  3. Art Scott’s avatar

    One of Ivan’s advisors was Steven A. Coons. See SIGGRAPH.

    I always wondred if that makes Steve the grandfather of Computer Graphics?

    Good blog Eric.

    Have you heard the one about the difference between Marketing and Sales?
    Marketing knows when it’s lying.

  4. Eric’s avatar

    > Have you heard the one about the difference between Marketing and Sales?

    One with a similar punchline: “What’s the difference between a used car salesman and a computer salesman?”

  5. Eric’s avatar

    Price discrimination I understand, but the usual idea is that the customer willing to pay more gets a little bit more, even if it’s at a ridiculous mark-up: $0.70 for whipped cream, $80 for gold-plated cables, $600 for undercoating, etc. Not being able to run HP-UX, a 220 volt power requirement, a bigger box – by any physical measure those are minuses, not something you normally pay more for (the random blinking lights, of course, who wouldn’t pay more?). I just like how perceived worth can get so out of line with reality and “fashion” of a sort even applies to business computers.

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