HP : This (mistake) is the cause of the failure of WebOS

Saturday, August 20th 2011. | Software News

I cannot remember a time when I would have considered HP an emotionally charged company. As far as excitement goes, HP is about as arousing as a toothpick. Today, however, is different. I believe it would be fair to say that investors do not approve, or, at the very least, do not especially like HP‘s new plan how the company plans to sail into the future. The company said that it be trying to sell its personal computer business, which is a major revenue source for HP. This was questioned not just outside of HP in the investor community, but especially by the services guys inside HP who never missed a chance to trash HP‘s interest in building consumer PCs.

Of course, there was also news that HP canceled its webOS hardware devices and is now leaving the future of the software in question, which essentially will cost HP at least about $2.5 billion to get rid of one of the greatest opportunities it had in a long time and is now left with the only choice to kill whatever is left of Palm, the company that pioneered mobile devices as we know them today. HP is served a broadside from the financial community today, with the most critical piece being Jeff Reeves’ article that compares HP to the “worst of corporate America.” I would not be so dramatic, but he has a point and there is much in this claim why webOS failed inside HP. WebOS failed for the very same reasons why VoodooPC failed as part of HP as well, for example.

HP today: Invent?
A few months ago, we heard HP CEO Leo Apotheker saying that he would hope that HP could be as cool as Apple is today. However, realistically, what is HP today and what do we think it will be without webOS and the PC business? A printer manufacturer? An enterprise services company that uses fancy names for trivial technologies described in Powerpoint presentations that put the company’s clients to sleep in a matter of minutes? Even in its enterprise business, HP seems to have lost its fire and we know that the company has been searching for direction for some time. A direction that has changed course several times since CEOs Carly Fiorina, Mark Hurd and now Leo Apotheker.

In servers, HP always had issues going after IBM and it was the profitability of IBM services that drove HP into this market as well. Yet HP never achieved the high profile and reputation of IBM in this market and could only grow its reach via substantial acquisitions, such as Autonomy now. It is not difficult to see that HP will be moving much more into the enterprise market and services than ever before. However, even in that space, HP may have problems at the very core as the company is turning into a giant that is the opposite of being nimble.

Its perennial rival IBM may be larger than HP, but it does much better job at being perceived as an innovation driver across all of its business segments — for example, with chips that are built using neuron-like structures. HP has its famous labs as well, but, honestly, when was the last time you heard about a significant innovation that has come out of HP? You can take this innovation game even further and look at the patent space. HP filed 2 patent applications with the U.S. PTO this week, IBM filed 44 and Samsung filed 98. On an average week, Samsung is filing for 130 new patents every week, IBM for about 120 and HP for about 15. The activity coming out of HP does not reflect the size of the company. If the number of filed patents that protect any innovation in fact are a sign for the innovative power of a company, then I would claim that “invent” is not be the best word to describe HP anymore.

A Colossal Mistake: webOS
The acquisition of Palm and webOS was an interesting move. For pocket change ($1.2 billion), HP bought itself an ailing, but very capable platform that could have changed the face of HP. WebOS was the foundation of a platform that screamed “innovation” much more than anything else HP has in its product portfolio today. There was initial enthusiasm for webOS and an opportunity that connected nicely to HP’s position as leading PC manufacturer — its aspirations as a smartphone company as well as the emerging tablet market that so heavily depends on a functioning platform. HP had the resources to build webOS into something great. What HP did not have was time and passion.

HP gave the Touchpad 49 days to succeed or fail. 49 painful days that jailed a fantastic OS in barely adequate and over-emphasized hardware. 49 days that proved that consumers will not just buy a $500 tablet because we all suddenly think that they are the best thing since sliced bread. In Leo Apotheker’s more pragmatic words: “Our WebOS devices have not gained enough traction in the marketplace with consumers and we see too long a ramp up in the market share. Due to market dynamics, significant competition and a rapidly changing environment and this week’s news only reiterates the speed and nature of this change, continuing to execute our current device approach in this market space is no longer in the best interest of HP and HP’s shareholders. Therefore, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to shut down the webOS hardware provisions within Q4 2011.” What Apotheker failed to mention is that it was not “market dynamics, significant competition and a rapidly changing environment” that killed webOS hardware, it was HP.

When HP acquired webOS with Palm, it was clear that this was a very fragile foundation for a new and highly marketed environment that required as much brainpower as risky and substantial monetary investments. The Touchpad was the first attempt. Like all Android tablets on the market today, the Touchpad lacked the reasoning, vision and passion that makes the iPad so successful. HP did not court webOS developers. Instead of a truly unique tablet, it produced an iPad copycat and sold it for the same price as the original. What reason would consumers have to buy the Touchpad over the iPad, if there are fewer apps, if there is a questionable future, if there is no platform integration, if there are no compelling phones, and if the iPad carries the innovation mindshare and all bragging rights? Releasing the Touchpad in its current form was driven by negligent market and consumer research at the very least.

HP had tremendous opportunities with webOS. It could have given the software away for free to invite developers. It could have create a huge platform spanning from PCs, appliances, smartphones to tablets. What is left is webOS with nowhere to go. There is talk that HP may try to license it to HTC or Samsung. I am not quite sure what HTC would do with webOS. HP calls this strategy now “optimizing the value of WebOS” after it virtually killed it with sub-par hardware.

Failure by design
HP has always had trouble integrating young companies and new ideas into an aging corporate structure that may not be so competitive anymore. Rahul Sood from VoodooPC left HP’s PC business earlier this year and joined Microsoft. VoodooPC, at least temporarily, gave HP the perception of being an enormously innovative company that took a playful and risky approach to set trends and not follow them.

WebOS is a deeply emotional product that failed inside HP most likely because of the same reasons companies like VoodooPC failed. Unless HP recognizes the opportunities it is given, unless it returns to the roots of innovation and becomes much more nimble and passionate than it is today, HP is simply stuck in a time that is slowly fading away. Apple is the poster child of what passion for its legacy and products can do for a company. HP needs to embrace the same spirit that is driving companies such as Apple and Google, whether it deals with business or home users. WebOS represented the passion that HP so desperately needs. The strong reaction of investors that sent HP’s stock down 20% to a six-year low may only be one indicator of HP’s shaky future. Hp cannot afford to miss many opportunities such as webOS.

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