By: Robin Bloor, Chief Research Officer, Bloor Research
Published: 24th February 2005
Copyright Bloor Research © 2005
The swift exit of HP's CEO, Carly Fiorina, has not been much mourned in the business press. Carly never brought the success that shareholders were hoping for and she had clearly run out of time. There has been a fair amount of sniping at her personal style, and the odd accusation of her not fitting in with "the HP way", but in the end it was her failure to make the merger with Compaq a roaring success that led to her exit.
It wasn't an easy merger for her to pull off. At the outset, there was a shareholder revolt, led by Walter Hewlett, son of HP cofounder Bill Hewlett, which she suppressed amid a good deal of acrimony. She also had to convince government regulators in the US and Europe that the merger was not anti-competitive.
As it happens, the merger wasn't competitive either. Certainly not in the PC market where Dell never noticed and just kept on eating a bigger chunk each year. Neither did it seem to have a particularly competitive impact on the server market, although HP had inherited some serious server assets from Compaq; the legacy and customer base of both Digital and Tandem.
So the question now is "where does HP go from here", assuming that it manages to find a CEO with energy, talent and vision.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about HP is the extraordinary and long-lived success of its printer division. I'm tempted to say that HP's printer business is a "cash cow" and, from a revenue perspective, it is. It generates roughly 75 percent of HP's profits each year – or to be more precise, printer cartridges do, because that's where the profits are.
However, HP's domination of the printer business is achieved in no small part by innovation and engineering excellence, not because it has a quasi-monopoly, and the mighty printer division does seem to skew its operations in other areas
The printer business is both a strength and a weakness. It's a weakness because most of the other markets that HP competes in are not exactly like the printer market. They don't deliver success in the same way or for the same reasons. The PC market is more cut throat and, if you ignore Apple's contribution and the disruptive factor of the Linux PC, it is not a market where engineering excellence – which is HP's hallmark – can make much of a difference. Mostly it's a margin game, which makes it Dell's game.
The server business is, admittedly, different to that – except at the low end - but HP hasn't managed to make much progress in it since the Compaq acquisition. Clearly the lack of success of the Itanium chip has damaged HP badly – especially as it is contrasted by the clear success of the current generation of IBM's Power PC chip, which makes IBM very competitive in the server market. I believe that this is a problem that HP can fix; the difficulty is that, short of aggressive cost cutting, there is no quick fix – at least not that I'm aware of. It will take time.
HP's software division continues to do what it seems to have done forever; bring good products to market and fail to establish them. Admittedly, there is the exception of OpenView, but its success seems accidental rather than intended. HP has not yet got the hang of software marketing and it will need help and good direction if that's to happen.
HP has been pushing into the consumer market (with digital cameras and associated multi-media technology) which is good for its printer business, and may prove to be a successful business initiative overall, but the consumer market is a tough place to play – it's very fashion driven and can be unforgiving. HP's fairly recent decision to sell the Apple iPod had me seriously confused. What is HP - a consumer channel? I think not.
There are other aspects of HP's business I could comment on (hand-helds, storage, services, etc.) but the big question for HP is; can it find a CEO that will make them all hang together? Hewlett Packard is one of the most important companies in the IT industry. It has a proud tradition of achievement and its excellent research labs are an extraordinary and probably underexploited asset. Right now though, it looks as though it needs effective leadership. Indeed, it needs to reinvent itself. Let's hope it happens.
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