Why is HP still in the PC business? It must be for the sport, because the money isn’t there. Looking at the quarterly figures released this past week, we see PC revenue down 15% year-to-year, with a low 5.2% Operating Profit:
HP can explain. In the earnings release conference call (transcript obligingly provided by Seeking Alpha), CFO Catherine A. Lesjak invokes the floods in Thailand and their impact on hard disk production as one excuse for the PC revenue shortfall. For her part, CEO Meg Whitman ‘‘opens the first envelope”: She (subtly) blames her predecessor for his PSG spin-off announcement and the ensuing on-again-off-again business disruption.
But the Thailand floods didn’t seem to have much of an impact on Dell, whose latest quarterly numbers show 3% Y/Y growth for Desktop PCs, let alone on the Cupertino neighbor where the Mac business grew by more than 20%. And as a member of HP’s Board of Directors at the time, didn’t Whitman approve the decision to dump the PC?
None of this answers the question: Why stick with a declining product line within a declining industry? Part of the answer lies in the weight of PSG:
The PC is still HP’s biggest business…and its least profitable. The only explanation for staying in the game, to quote Meg Whitman in her conference call remarks:
‘It gives us great return on invested capital and a lot of synergies.’
Perhaps, but what happens to the enjoyable cashflow if the PC business continues to deteriorate, as an industry in general, and as a challenged product line at HP?
Personal computing now comes in three flavors: traditional, tablets, and smartphones. The latter two are dynamic and thriving while the traditional segment stagnates. HP has failed to gain any presence in tablets and smartphones, and now finds itself the biggest player in a market that’s in a race to the bottom.
HP’s absence from the tablet/smartphone segment isn’t for want of trying. When then-CEO Mark Hurd decided to acquire Palm, he was making a clear strategic move for HP to become a major player in smartphones and tablets, to gain independence from stodgy Microsoft, to control its destiny in the newer and more promising personal computing segments. The move was reinforced last August when HP’s Board supported Léo Apotheker’s decision to exit the unprofitable PC business, a gambit inspired by IBM’s similar decision years earlier.
Unfortunately, not-so-small matters of implementation compromised the grand design. Palm’s WebOS tablets and smartphones didn’t fly; Apotheker’s exit-without-an-exit-path announcement was followed by a hasty retreat and Léo’s no less hasty exit. Epaulette mate.
All HP can do now for its PSG business is pray. And, indeed, Meg Whitman bows to the Microsoft altar:
‘So we’re rooting for a fantastic Windows 8 product that’s delivered on time that we can get to the market before the holiday season.’
What does HP have to say about tablets? Not a word. Browse the conference call transcript; CMD-F, ‘tablet’, Enter… Nothing in Whitman’s prepared presentation, no T-word in the Q&A section. (A bonus finding: The silence of the analysts. Let the record show how lamely choreographed these Q&A sessions are. No analyst even dared to ask HP’s CEO about, you know, iPads, Kindle Fires, Android tablets… For once, the elephant-in-the-room metaphor applies: For Apple’s most recent quarter, iPad revenue rose to $9.15B vs. $8.87B for HP’s PSG. Definitely not worthy of a discussion for the benefit of HP’s concerned shareholders.)
At a WSJ event the same day, HP’s CEO finally admits the existence of the iPad…and gives it a patronizing pat on the head:
The iPad is terrific; I have one. I use it to read books or watch TV but I don’t use it to really get work done.
In another interview, as reported by Business Insider, Whitman recycles the old Blackberry enterprise security argument:
‘I think our sweet spot has to be around security. This whole security thing is a big worry, not just for big enterprises but also for medium enterprises and small and medium businesses. So if we can provide devices that consumers really want — and by the way, employees are consumers, too — and we can provide a tablet offering, then we have an opportunity to solve problems for the enterprise and small- and medium-business segments, with products that their employees like and are also secure in terms of protecting the enterprise’s data.’
The S-word paranoia stopped working for the BlackBerry some time ago. Enterprise users have embraced the iPad because, thanks to Apple’s ‘‘control freakery’’, the new tablets are more secure than laptops. I know of one giant oil company that deploys thousands of iPads (and iPhones), complete with the corporation’s own internal App Store, chock-full of homegrown applications for its office workers and road warriors.
It sounds like HP’s CEO is aping the best-of-both-worlds posture affected by Microsoft for its upcoming tablet software: We give you the productivity of a traditional PC plus the portability/fluidity of a touch-friendly tablet. She seems to have ignored the reason for the iPad’s success in business: Be better at less. The iPad doesn’t try to do everything a PC can do, it’s simply better at the things it does.
Business users have figured this out on their own, without waiting for the market research – or the blessings of their IT departments. In this post, TechCrunch reviews a new Forrester report on mobile and personal devices at work:
[T]he report notes that today’s I.T. departments think they have only a handful of devices out in the field: a PC and smartphone for most users, and maybe a tablet for a handful of execs. But in reality, one-half of info workers report using multiple devices, often behind I.T.’s back.
These workers prefer a set of tools to a Swiss Army knife.
Later in the same TechCrunch post:
Employees today are bringing their own devices largely outside of BYOD programs, Gillett says. While 73 percent of workers pick their own phone, 53 percent their own laptop, 22 percent their own desktop, and 66 percent their own tablet, significant numbers of workers report paying for the devices themselves. In the case of smartphones, for example, 57 percent report paying the full price for the device themselves, and 48 percent report paying full price for their own tablet.
There was a time when HP, Dell, and others could sell fleets of PCs because employees had to take what IT gave them. Today, users/workers are more inclined to decide for themselves which devices they want and, in many companies, management supports the initiative because it improves productivity without an increase in risk or cost.
Does HP stand a chance to become a viable supplier of the kinds of devices business users choose for themselves? We know the official answer: We’ll try harder; we’ll eliminate silos and inefficiencies in the supply chain; we’ll innovate again. Some of that may work for a while…but will it work faster than the competition? Also, with the exception of the departed CEO, most of the people who got HP in its current situation are still there. Will the same crew cause the same effects?
I still think HP’s initial intuition was right, that the PC business, as driven by Microsoft and Intel, will increasingly become a race to the bottom — with the two Wintel allies sucking all the profits. Instead of ‘‘rooting for a fantastic Windows 8”, HP should root around for a buyer for its PC business.