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By Jack Ganssle
Published on embedded.com, February, 2014
The oscilloscope on the shelf over my bench has an HP logo. The one below it is labelled "Agilent Technologies".
My next one may be made by Keysight Technologies.
In 1939 Bill and Dave, working in their iconic garage, built their HP200A audio oscillator, birthing one of the greatest test equipment companies ever. Market leaders HP and Tektronix battled each other for decades; we, the engineers using their products, were the beneficiaries. The place where I worked in the 70s was a Tek shop, when it came to scopes. Much of our other test equipment came from HP. I remember the stacks of grey-paneled HP power supplies, their analog meters a long cry from even inexpensive supplies available today, but they were rock-solid and we never had one fail.
Years of working with Tektronix high-end scopes (like the, for the time, fabulous 7000 series) biased me against HP's offerings, and even today I feel their 70-eras stuff lacked the snazzy looks and performance of their rivals.
Competition is a wonderful thing, and HP did catch up. Their 54645D might have been the first-ever mixed-signal scope (one that includes a logic analyzer). It appeared around 1998, and mine is still going strong. It is analog, uses a CRT (remember those?) and has none of the really useful features we expect on more modern gear.
In 1999, for reasons I have never understood, HP spun out their instrumentation division into Agilent Technologies. I thought it was HP's core business, one where they were a true market leader. Now HP makes PCs (yawn), and ink cartridges, plus the printers needed to consume that over-priced ink. Their fortunes have been bumpy, ill-served by some chiefs. For years the employees I know there have been afraid for their jobs; in December they announced another round of layoffs. 34k people will lose their jobs in A2014.
My main PC is an HP, though I have no loyalty to the brand. The latest machine here is from Dell, mostly because that was available at Best Buy and my wife's computer died. We have HP and Brother printers. Buying this stuff is like purchasing gasoline; there's not a lot of differentiation between competing products.
Agilent's story is more subdued, perhaps mirroring the glamorless nature of electronic test equipment. At least to Wall Street. Few investors understand the difference between a spectrum analyzer and an oscilloscope. Their stock price doesn't show the mad booms and busts of consumer electronics.
While HP started shedding employees and market value, Agilent prospered. Their products (at least for test equipment; I know little about their science and medical business) continued to improve. My Agilent MSO-X 3054A offer incredible performance, features, and, yes, sexy looks. To a geek, at least. A lot of my friends are old-timers who still use their ancient analog gear, and their eyes fairly bug out when I demo the features this puppy has. (Once, when a pal was having I2C comm troubles, we met at a bar with the scope and troubleshot his board. You can imagine the reaction of the non-techies swilling their beers.)
HP may wither, but the spirit of Bill and Dave lives on in Agilent.
Now Agilent is spinning off their $2.9B test equipment into a new company called Keysight Technologies. Is this a good move or not? I don't know, but will have to, once again, get used to the new name. Keysight will still offer the same products, and will in general have the same people, so we engineers will remain well-served. We'll see a new logo, but will have the same cool features and quality under the hood of the equipment we buy from them.
I have evaluated some of Tektronix's recent gear, and found them impressive. Their mixed-domain scope is incredible. They even offer sub-$1k scopes, which look, from the data sheets, to be a good choice for the cost-constrained who don't need a lot of bandwidth. LeCroy and Rhode & Schwarz, too, offer some products that most of us would be happy to use. For the severely price conscious, products from Rigol and other Chinese vendors give some decent performance. This is a good time to be in the market for test equipment as features have never been so broad, and price points never so diverse.
Given the company's historic strong operating margins and great product line I'm sure Agilent Keysight will prosper. The spinoff is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year; it'll be interesting to see which logo graces the equipment they demo at EELive.
There's more info about the changes here: http://www.agilent.com/about/companyinfo/company-separation.html.
What's your take? Are you loyal to a particular brand of test equipment?