Saturday, May 28, 2011

The HP 12c Cult

From The Wall Street Journal:
Matthew Rothman bought an HP 12c financial calculator for his first job out of college in 1989.

Years later, he still has the same calculator. And he still uses it constantly, just like thousands of other 12c enthusiasts.

"Whenever I switch jobs, I just peel the old business card that is on the back and tape my newest one on," says Mr. Rothman, head of quantitative equity strategies at Barclays Capital in New York.

Sales of the device, which debuted in 1981, haven't slipped even after its manufacturer, Hewlett-Packard Co., introduced more-advanced devices or even, two years ago, a 12c iPhone application, which replicates all the calculator's functions, the company says.

"Once you learned it on the 12c, there was no need to change," says David Carter, chief investment officer of New York wealth-management firm Lenox Advisors, who has owned his 12c for 22 years and still keeps it on his desk. "It's not like the math was changing."

Thirty years after the launch of the 12c, it's still commonplace for financial analysts filing into a conference room to set down their calculators next to their papers and cellphones.

Indeed, the 12c, which costs $70 on H-P's website, is H-P's best-selling calculator of all time, though the company won't reveal how many units it has sold over the years. (A standard calculator costs about $10.) Its chief competitor is Texas Instruments' $28 BA II Plus, which is the only other calculator test-takers are permitted to use on the official CFA exam.

The 12c is slim, black and gold, and rectangular, just over five inches wide by three inches high. It runs on an unconventional operating system called "Reverse Polish Notation," which eschews parentheses and equal signs in an effort to run long calculations more efficiently.

That may be one reason users are reluctant to switch. "I've become so addicted to it that I am unable to use the iPhone calculator correctly," says John Lynch, chief equity strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management Group in Charlotte, N.C.

The system tends to render the calculator mystifying to the novice user. Senior portfolio managers, who use it to calculate bond yields, rates of return and present value, among other things, say they enjoy watching their younger colleagues struggle to master its quirks...

Wall Street's Cult Calculator Turns 30
MAY 4, 2011

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