September 27, 2011 2:01 am
HP’s indestructible number cruncher
From Mr John Townsend Rich.
Sir, Tim Bradshaw’s welcome salute to the venerable Hewlett-Packard 12c calculator (“Unchanged after 30 years, the handheld device that remains a must-have”, Business Life, September 23) failed to point out one of the main features: its apparent indestructibility. I have used two 12c’s for many years, one at home and one at the office, and I cannot remember even the decade in which I bought them. I have dropped them with dismaying frequency, yet they continue to soldier on. The battery lasts so long that I have trouble remembering how to replace it. Definitely not “designed to fail”. Hewlett-Packard’s reputation is secure with me on the basis of this one product, and I wish it well.
John Townsend Rich, Bethesda, MD, US
September 22, 2011 11:39 pm
Handheld device that remains a must-have
By Tim Bradshaw
In a world of smartphones and tablet devices, Hewlett-Packard’s 12c is a relic of the 1980s. An electronic device with one fundamental function: financial calculations. And, by today’s standards, not even a particularly sophisticated financial calculator.
Yet this month, it is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a special “Platinum” edition. The company is coy about figures but it is estimated to sell tens of thousands of these $70 calculators every year. It has never been out of production.
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The reason for the HP 12c’s survival in defiance of technological progress is in part its stubborn refusal to change. While touchscreen smartphones and laptops can do many things quite well, the 12c is close to perfection for calculations fundamental to the daily work of many City analysts, accountants and actuaries.
It is one of only two calculators permitted to be used in Chartered Financial Analyst examinations, the other being the cheaper Texas Instruments Business Analyst II Plus.
Both offer reverse polish notation, an initially counter-intuitive way of entering sums that analysts swear by to calculate cash flows, amortisation, time value of money and mortgage payments.
The 12c, however, seems to have a special place in the hearts of those who use it. Its design remains almost entirely as it was when launched in 1981, when it cost $150, giving it a certain retro appeal.
That also means it hasn’t been encumbered with extraneous features that could detract from its utility – the “feature bloat” that commonly afflicts technology as manufacturers find new baubles to nudge us to upgrade. It doesn’t even allow storage of text or formulas, which is why it appeals to CFA examiners, who tested 165,000 students in the past year.
But perhaps more important is the aura of wisdom and financial prowess that a well-worn 12c confers on its owner. “By slapping the old HP 12c down on the table, you’re saying: ‘I’m a complex thinker, I can handle detail and I mean business,’ ” says Thomas Singlehurst, a CFA and a media analyst at Citigroup in London.
The black faux-leather pouch which the 12c comes in helps, of course, as do the array of satisfyingly clicky buttons, the clear black-and-white display, and tanklike durability.
“It’s delightfully tactile . . . and beautiful in its complexity,” says Adrian Melrose, a chartered accountant turned technology consultant and avid early adopter.
Today, Mr Melrose uses one of several 12c emulator apps available for the iPhone and iPad – HP’s official one costs $15 (or, for the true completist, $20 for the “Platinum” edition app). “There was a bit of gravitas that was lost when I moved to the iPad,” he admits.
According to HP Solve, the company’s quarterly calculator newsletter, the 12c has been manufactured in five different countries since 1981, beginning in the US and Singapore before moving to China in 1999. (Some users have been known to complain that the keys rattle in 1990s Malaysian-made editions.)
“The HP 12c calculator has withstood the test of professionals and time longer than any other calculator, and possibly longer than any other consumer electronics product ever made,” the company claims.
HP has made changes beneath the surface over the years, moving from alkaline to lithium batteries and replacing gold-plated circuit board traces. When the original processor went out of production, HP emulated the 12c’s code so that it ran at the same speed, even on a faster chip.
Yet the 12c’s future is uncertain as HP ceases production of its Palm-based tablets and smartphones, plans the separation of its PC division and replaces its chief executive. Its fans are concerned about the lack of clarity over where the 12c might end up.
Mr Melrose thinks the company would be mad to part with this iconic device.
“I can confidently say that every HP 12c user would continue to replace it for the rest of their lives,” he says. “There is a 12c generation. It’s a way of thinking.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011