It’s a beautiful sight when, year after year, a company stays true to its original idea. But when a business loses the plot, we witness a sorry spectacle, an expensive slide into mediocrity. Every wayward company is wayward in its own way: Accountants masquerading as product planners; wannabe visionary execs jealousy trying to prove that they, too, can put a dent in the universe; board members panicking over bad press. But the result never varies: Customers leave.

A few weeks ago I was in France, enjoying the benefits of the French Paradox and happily testing its limits: Lots of duck fat washed down with an ethanol tincture of polyphenols. It was in this fulfilled state that I watched the launch of the latest iteration of an iconic product. There was a little stretch in one dimension, a little squeeze in another, measurable weight loss, more power better utilized, bigger screen for navigation…

The kommentariat were unanimous, the sum of the improvements equals a blockbuster.

I’m not talking about the boring iPhone 5. The occasion was the seventh iteration of the Volkswagen Golf, introduced at the 2012 Paris Motor Show (or, in the modest French appellation, the Mondial de l’Automobile).

The praise is deserved. Golf 7.0 comes with plenty of new features, yet stays backwards-compatible with previous releases…it’s still recognizable as a Golf.

Born in 1974, the Golf (then dubbed the Rabbit in the US) managed to stay true to Volkswagen’s overall corporate brief — its “People’s Car” mandate — while giving the idea new life by walking away from the Beetle’s design. The engine and drive wheels moved upfront; Giorgetto Giugiaro, the legendary and extraordinarily prolific designer, outlined the hatchback’s iconic silhouette, still recognized and loved 38 years later.

Admittedly, the Golf strayed a bit over the years, it gained weight, developed haunches. At one point, it grew to nearly twice its original mass. Worse, reliability was up and down, as were the experts’ opinions of its drivability.

But despite the swerves and cul-de-sac design details, Volkswagen managed to return to the original concept of a sexy, functional hatchback. And the customers didn’t leave — more than 30 million Golfs have been sold.

The Honda Civic story isn’t nearly pleasant. The Civic was introduced in 1967 as a tiny kei car hatchback called the N360 — for the 360 cubic centimeters of its motorcycle engine. In 1972, the little hatchback grew a pair of additional cylinders and became an auto industry icon, the first for Honda.

Year after year, Honda lovingly improved the Civic: Larger, smoother body; more comfortable interior; cleaner, more powerful engine; smoother suspension. For about twenty years, the Civic was a model of neat progression, of staying true to the original hatchback idea.

But in the mid-nineties, the Civic lost its unmistakable identity. No longer satisfied with being a versatile, dependable transportation machine, the Civic wanted to be treated with respect, it wanted…valet parking. A few years later, the Civic suffered a midlife crisis and tried to become a sports car.

What happened? Was it because of a change of the guard inside the company? Honda was often taken to task for being too much of a maverick; did the Japanese company try too hard to placate critics and become more “normal”?

The parallel Golf and Civic stories show a sharp contrast between the two companies. In many respects, the Civic started as a technically superior product. It had a better engine, better manufacturing, and legendary reliability. But Volkswagen stuck to the original concept and is well rewarded as a result.

There are even sorrier examples of lost plots in the auto industry — think Citroën — but it’s time to turn to our industry.

Regard Hewlett-Packard, serial plot loser.

In the early 70’s, HP owned the PC market (and forgive the anachronism…back then they were called “desktop computers”). Using the technical and financial might it had earned with its late-sixties “programmable calculator” line, HP developed a range of “discrete logic implementations” (integrated circuits) of their 2100 series minicomputer instruction set. It was a clean, visionary strategy. Very quickly, HP’s 9800 series of desktop computers flattened every competitor in its path: Wang, Olivetti, Tektronix, Seiko…

Then, in 1972, Intel introduced the 8008 microprocessor. HP looked down its nose at these  cheap, woefully underpowered 8-bit gizmos…there was no way these toys could compete with HP’s fast, powerful, 16-bit desktop devices — why, even HP’s old 9810A calculator used a 16-bit brain.

We know the rest of the story: The inexpensive devices Pac-Manned their way into HP’s PC business. The 9800 series was displaced by a crowd of entrants, many powered by Microsoft software, including the Apple ][, whose Basic Applesoft interpreter came from Redmond.

It wasn’t until 2002 that HP regained the PC industry’s top spot — and it only did so by acquiring Compaq, the deposed king of PCs. (Ironically, Compaq’s history is similarly predatory: It vaulted to the top when it acquired DEC, another erstwhile king, albeit of the  minicomputer industry. DEC missed the PC revolution entirely.)

Ten years later, after a sorry successions of CEOs, HP’s PC business has become a lackluster, low-margin (5%) endeavor, and Lenovo (or will it be Acer?) is about to assume the number one position in sales.

There is more.

HP was once the king of “mobile computing”. Starting with the HP 35 pocket device (1972), the company grew a phenomenally successful range of iconic devices such as the HP-80 and the HP-12C, the darlings of financial users.

In 1974, the HP-65 topped the range with its magnetic stripe reader for external program storage. The HP-80 had such high margins it provided most of the company’s meager profits during a mid-70‘s financial downturn. (Or so I, lowly HP trenchworker at the time, was told by “upper management”. I’ve researched the record but haven’t been able to confirm the factoid.)

HP owned the pocket-sized form factor, but they’ve since lost the mobile computing plot. There have been a few spasms — the iPaq devices, an iPod dalliance, the amazingly botched $1.2B Palm acquisition– but now HP plays no part in the mobile revolution.

HP CEO Meg Whitman knows this is a problem, that it must be fixed. She tells us that the company must “offer a smartphone because in many countries of the world that is your first computing device.” Her solution? HP won’t have a smartphone in 2013. (Whitman has also announced losses for this year, more losses for next year, and plans to lay off 29,000 people.)

Indeed, for more and more people, in both developing and developed countries, the smartphone has become the first computing device, the really personal computer. So what does “No Smartphone In 2013″ say?

There’s no dearth of Taiwan companies ready with customizable designs. That’s how Nokia got its first Lumia phones from Compal. So why isn’t HP coming up with a Windows Phone 8 device in the next few months? There’s only one possible answer: margins. The smartphone business, dominated as it is by Samsung and Apple, is now in a clones race to the bottom. For HP, this is an all-too-familiar plot line.

How can HP, with its new Make it Matter slogan, continue to lose its key plots? Waiting until 2014 to re-enter the smartphone race won’t help. And competing against Lenovo, Acer and others in the Windows 8 PC-cum-tablet space won’t make HP’s clone business more profitable.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

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