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User to User: EduCALC Closes Its Doors

User to User: EduCALC Closes Its Doors

Why did this major palmtop dealer go out of business, and what effect will its demise have on HP 100/200LX users?

By Hal Goldstein

After 20 years of business, EduCALC closed its doors December 31, 1997. What a shame. Its closing truly marks the end of an era.

In the early 70s, Hewlett-Packard engineers invented the pocket calculator. In a way that marked the beginning of the personal computer era, as calculating power gradually became available to everyone. HP continued through the early 90s to pioneer handheld calculation, and in 1991 it invented the HP 95LX palmtop PC.

EduCALC was there almost from the start to support geeks, well before it was in and lucrative to be a geek. EduCALC supported progressive scientists, engineers, and businesspeople who wanted the latest and best of HP calculator technology and add-ons. EduCALC CEO, Jim Carter, regularly published a catalog that not only enthusiastically sold, but educated consumers about HP calculator products.

While EduCALC aggressively priced products, at the same time (thanks to the expertise of Richard Nelson) it also provided free technical support on the products it sold. Richard, with EduCALC's support, helped sponsor not-for-profit user groups, freeware disks, and conferences. EduCALC also supplied for free, or at cost to desperate users, hard-to-get parts and out-of-date manuals.

We (Thaddeus Computing) began almost 13 years ago. For a time we were in competition with EduCALC as we both sold HP Portable products and services. When the palmtop era began, EduCALC advertised with us almost right from the start. Even when competing, I always had great respect for them. Of course, they were in business to make a profit. But they really cared about their customers, and they were enthusiastic about the platform they supported.

HP benefited from EduCALC in innumerable ways. At one point EduCALC sent out half of a million catalogs educating people around the world about HP calculators and continued to print one million catalogs per year until 1997. The fact that EduCALC provided technical support and supplied hard-to-find parts saved HP lots of dollars and made for a much happier customer base. Market information that EduCALC supplied HP must have been invaluable.

So why is EduCALC closing its doors and what does it mean to us? There are a number of reasons, I think, why EduCALC cant continue. It has to do with HP and with consumer mentality. More fundamentally, it has to do with where calculators and palmtops are, in the product life-cycle. I would imagine that when TVs (or cars) were first invented, there were knowledgeable pioneering dealers who really knew and loved their product. That must have given way to the business of selling TVs, as TVs became commodities and part of big business.

On the surface of it, HP and price-is-everything consumer consciousness deserves the blame for the demise of EduCALC. Vie chronicled some of this in past columns, but HP made a number of decisions, as well as several blunders, that severely damaged the HP calculator and HP 200LX market. HP has decided that industry-standard products have a much better chance at a wide following than the existing high-end niche palmtop and calculator market. In the same way that under $500 HP DeskJet printers can be found everywhere, HP wants to be the premier source for handhelds. That is why HP is strongly supporting the Windows CE operating system.

In the meantime, the R&D and marketing of HP calculators and HP 200LX palmtops seemed to have virtually disappeared. To top it off, HP grossly underestimated the demand for 200LXs in 1997. That meant that for about a five month period retailers couldn't get palmtops to resell. That not only severely hurt EduCALC, but it damaged us and most HP Palmtop Paper advertisers.

At the same time, consumers have been increasingly spoiled by computer superstores. Why purchase a palmtop or calculator from EduCALC when for $5 to $45 less you can purchase it at a superstore? Further, since EduCALC and other of our advertisers such as Shier Systems are palmtop experts, many consumers think little of calling a toll-free number and getting pre-sales or post-sales support from EduCALC, but then, going and purchasing the product elsewhere. When those same consumers needed a latch or a screw or a manual, they called EduCALC.

OK. So, HP is to blame. We consumers wanting to save a few dollars are to blame. But I think what is really going on is the natural product cycle. Computers, calculators, palmtops are no longer unique (or at least they are no longer perceived or marketed as such). It is no longer just the visionaries that buy these products. Every school child has a calculator. If Microsoft and HP have their way, every Windows user will have a handheld PC.

HP is a huge corporation, and it no longer can afford to have an entire division devoted to selling 100,000 palmtops a year with diminishing margins. They must sell 500,000 a year. They must do so through superstores and large corporate sales. EduCALC and Thaddeus Computing may have served a purpose, but they are no longer part of the game plan.

As new HP people and new divisions take over calculator and palmtop marketing, the chances are they have little or no knowledge of the contribution and accumulated wisdom of EduCALC or Thaddeus Computing. At the same time, relatively small companies (20-40 people) such as EduCALC and Thaddeus Computing don't really have the resources to compete in a much more price-sensitive, product is a commodity environment. Our strength has been in our ability to support customers, not move boxes.

So perhaps this is just natural evolution. However, when the EduCALCs of the world can no longer do business, something is lost. My wife, reading this over my shoulder, asked me, so what? Why will your readers care? Imp not sure. Readers that know of EduCALC and have been served by them will probably be interested. I guess I am trying to make the point that the golden age of calculators and palmtop computing may have passed.

Palmtops and calculators in the future will be cheaper, more easy to use, and more advanced technologically. Eventually, they may even be more useful. But they will be a commodity, and much of the enjoyment of shared discovery at being at the leading edge of a new technology is coming to an end.

As I mentioned in a previous editorial, we plan to stay in business supporting 95LX/100LX/200LX users for some time. Based on our renewals and a very positive response selling upgrades, we will make it at least to the year 2000, and most likely beyond. Because of The HP Palmtop Paper and our large mailing lists, we are ideally situated to serve HP Palmtop customers as long as people continue to use and value the 200LX. We will be selling a large variety of palmtop-related products, and we will be doing repair work.

As I have mentioned in the past, my 200LX continues to be my main, most important computer. For the most part, Windows CE 2.0 is a step in the right direction. Color screens are appealing. But nothing yet comes close to what I can do with my 8 meg doublespeed 200LX.

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