Sunday, December 11, 2022

HP Calculators

Long before there was Apple nonsense, there was HP nonsense.

When I was in Engineering school, the personal computer was just becoming a thing.  Since they cost a few grand (which today would be like ten grand) few of us could afford one.  But we all had pocket calculators, and like cell phones of today, they came in two flavors: TI and HP.

The Texas Instruments TI-30 was the go-to calculator for most of us.  It was cheap and easy to use and didn't require you unlearn how to use a calculator.  The HP calculators, on the other hand, used a weird form of calculation.  For example, with a TI calculator, if you wanted to figure out how much 2+2 was, you would input:





And you'd get "4."   Simple enough.  With an HP calculator, you would input:





And then get "4."   Same equation, but a lot more hassle and non-intuitive as well!  Supposedly, it was easier when entering long equations, but I never saw the advantage.  That, and the HP calculators were twice as much money as the venerable TI-30 and that sort of sealed the deal.

UPDATE:  A reader reminds me that back in the day, we used to call the HP technique, "Reverse Polish Notation."  My apologies to people of Polish heritage, but back then, that's what we said!   Wow.  I just read that Wikipedia entry and RPN was created by, and named for, a Polish mathematician.  So it is not an ethnic slur, but an accolade!  Reverse Polish Notation - Salut!  No more parentheses!

If you were working on a project with a lab partner, and they had an HP, and you asked to borrow their calculator, it was like trying to navigate an iPhone when you are an Android person.  It is sort of the same, and yet different.  Where is the fucking go-back key?  Taking that away makes no sense, other than from an aesthetic point of view.

Ditto when the situation is reversed - HP people vainly searching for the non-existent "ENTER" key on your TI-30.

The HP calculator was supposed to be "better" and the people who bought them were often insufferable about this - sneering at your plebeian TI-30 and launching into long diatribes about the supposed superiority of the HP calculator and its obtuse method of operation.  "Once you get used to it," they said, "it's no big deal!"  An even better deal is not having to get used to it. So much better to have an intuitive interface.

But that points out the prime advantage of the TI-30: None of us were emotionally invested in it.  We didn't feel the need to defend it or tout it or make it part of our personal identity.  It was just a tool we used, not a lifestyle choice or a brand-name affiliation.

Now, granted, HP made a lot of neat stuff back in the day.  We call cut our teeth on HP oscilloscopes and we even had an HP mini-mainframe in the lab.  The HP LaserJet was the go-to printer and probably had a near monopoly in that market at one time.  But that was a long time ago - I am not even sure what they make anymore - if anything - other than Silicon Valley bullshit.

But the calculator thing kind of left a bad taste in my mouth.  And when Apple came along, with its own proprietary software and "closed ecosystem" computers, I realized I had been down this road before.

Today, with iPhones, it is the same deal.  People pay top dollar for an iPhone - more than you would pay for a laptop or even a PC.  And then then they bore you to death with the supposed advantages of the iPhone and of course, sneer at your plebeian Android phone.  They hold the phone with the Apple logo facing out, and their phone case has a little apple-shaped hole in it, so you can see the logo, because, what's the point of owning an iPhone if everyone thinks you have a shitty Samsung?

This sort of thing appeals to shallow people.

Android people, on the other hand, don't feel "invested" in their technology.  My old Samsung Galaxy 7 Active cost $99 on eBay used, and quite frankly, does everything I need it to do.  The only feature it doesn't have is status.

In a way, it reminds me of a Ron White bit - actually two of his bits.  First, the "Sunglass Hut" routine, where the clerk at a booth in the mall sneers at him for questioning the value of a pair of $309 sunglasses.   Second, the "Mercedes versus Van" bit, where Ron gets even with his snooty brother-in-law by pointing out that while his van doesn't have tiny windshield wipers on the headlights, it has a bed in the back where he can "bang your sister."   Truly a useful feature.

Of course, once Ron started making serious money, he leased a private jet.  So status consumes us all, it seems.  I'll bet he sold the van, too.

Being different for the sake of being different, is, in my mind, pointless.  It also reminds me of the Betamax freaks, who would bore you for hours how "superior" their tape machines were compared to VCRs.  It must have hurt to throw those away, eventually.

I doubt the same will ever happen to Apple, but Americans have a skewed view of the cell phone universe.  Outside of the USA, Apple is not the major player in the cell phone market.  But so long as Americans have money and crave status, the status products will sell.

Until the money runs out, that is.