Always One Step Behind

HP's response, the TouchPad, was announced in January 2011. "Today we’re embarking on a new era of webOS with the goal of linking a wide family of HP products through the best mobile experience available," said Jon Rubinstein, ex-Palm CEO and now VP of HP's Palm Business Unit. Apotheker backed him up revealing webOS would be at the heart of HP's vision to "create a massive platform". The TouchPad went on sale four months later, by which time Rubenstein had left the company and the Palm brand had been dissolved. After six weeks on sale the TouchPad, all webOS smartphones, webOS itself and HP PC's – not yet webOS enabled - were deemed surplus to the company's latest stab at a new vision…


As a result press href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-14598006">http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-14598006 and market reaction has been extreme. HP's decision to buy UK enterprise software company Autonomy this week for $11.7bn (£7.1bn) will see it shift away from hardware and consumers towards a software and enterprise future. Apotheker used HP's familiar rhetoric describing it as "an opportunity to accelerate our strategic vision to decisively and profitably lead a large and growing space". Bradley had used almost exactly the same terminology regarding the Palm purchase 16 months ago.

Unlike previous endeavours, however, this time the words may not prove hollow. Compaq, Voodoo and Palm purchases were expected to fit into HP's gargantuan corporate structure, with Autonomy HP is changing to fit it. HP also isn't as late into the sector as it was with mobile devices and having paid a sum equivalent to 47x Autonomy's annual pre-tax profits it is clearly determined to succeed. But what about the cast offs?

For webOS the future is bleak. Optimists see the platform being successfully licensed or sold to companies with a better fit like HTC or Samsung, companies which would have had the mobile experience to bring webOS products to market more quickly in the first place. Then again with such small developer interest a long term turn around seems slim. WebOS was the right product created by the wrong company, sold to the wrong company. Had circumstances been different few doubt it could have rivalled iOS or Android.

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Meanwhile there are repeated calls that the sale/spin off of the Personal Systems Group means the post PC era is upon us. This is nonsense. The post-profitable PC era would be more correct, but it will still take a great deal of time before tablets and smartphones fully usurp the PC. In fact in terms of form factor – if not OS, laptop and desktop computing likely still has decades to run.

Where the future is most bleak is HP's 324,000 employees. Given this is over 6x Apple's 49,000 strong workforce it alone shows the inefficient manpower required to keep HP's box shifting business going. In exactly two weeks it will be the 10th anniversary of HP's deal to buy Compaq. For the company's five CEOs since then the decade will be best forgotten. There were only four CEOs previously since it was founded in 1939. 

The world has been developing one step ahead of HP for far too long. It won't get many more chances to catch up.

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