HP minus iPod: Why it makes sense

Posted by: Peter Burrows on August 01, 2005

Financially speaking, Mark Hurd’s decision for Hewlett-Packard to stop selling Apple Computer’s iPod music player is very nearly a non-event. With just 5% of all iPod sales, revenues from the “Apple iPod from HP” have been a rounding error for HP since the deal commenced in early 2004.

But Hurd’s move may be a major step forward in solving a big problem that isn’t easily measured in dollars and cents: HP’s identity crisis.

Here's what I mean. I'd argue that for the past decade or so, HP has been too focused on deciding who to be like, rather than on finding its own way. The problem started when the company began to outgrow the simple formula that had made it the world's most successful, and profitable, engineering company. That formula: put smart techies in a room, and leave them alone to design the kind of engineering gear they'd love to get for Christmas. Whenever one of them came up with a gizmo that got his colleagues' transistors buzzing, chances are the company had another hit on its hands.

But life got more complicated when sales of printers and PCs--aimed at businesses and even consumers, egads!--began to dwarf sales of products sold to engineers. No doubt, the company as a whole has proven hugely successful by tech standards; just consider the long list of former rivals that couldn't make the jump. But outside of the dominant printer group, which has always had a strong sense of self, HP never seemed quite comfortable in its new skin. In too many ways, it seemed more like a follower in search of someone to emulate.

Take computers. Back in 1995 or so, HP seemed to catch a bad case of Dell envy. Rather than use its R&D muscle to come up with stand-out innovations (or get out of low-margin businesses where it would be hard-pressed to compete), it set out to match Dell's hyper-efficiency in many of these businesses. For the most part, it came up just short enough of the target for it to hurt, leaving it in a sort of high-tech purgatory. For years now, HP has struggled to show consistent profits in its vast PC and high-end system businesses, but has also lacked the breakthrough products necessary to deliver stand-out performance.

To end that depressing outlook, Carly Fiorina swung HP's attention from Austin to Armonk , and to some extent Cupertino. After she was hired in 1999, she tried to fix the computing businesses by melding HP's vast portfolio of products into soup-to-nuts solutions that would solidify its position with corporate buyers and pad its profits--much as IBM does. Alas, HP remains for the most part what it was: a big boxmaker, that badly lags IBM in the services and software that ties those products together.

On the consumer side of the house, Fiorina seemed to take her cues from Apple. The message seemed to be that if HP could be as mighty as IBM, it could be as cool as Steve Jobs & Co., to boot. The iPod deal was the hallmark of this effort, but not the only element. For example, the company began pouring huge money into slick TV corporate image ads filled with hip urbanites, clearly aimed at the world's most-likely-to-own-an-iPod demographic. The ads were a far cry from, and a big improvement over, the hopelessly geeky efforts of HP past. But they haven't had much impact. In BusinessWeek's latest Global Brands Scorecard, HP brand equity fell 10%.

The moral of the story: that HP once again has to come up with its own unique strategy, one that reflects and builds on HP's culture and capabilities. Clearly, the iPod deal wasn't such a transaction. Fiorina okayed it despite her stated strategy of rekindling HP's status as an inventor of world-changing products; one Wall St. wag joked soon after the deal was announced that "the logo says Invent, not distribute." And there were other signs of trouble ahead. The deal got the go-ahead despite the objections of many HP managers who feared it would cloud HP's overall digital media strategy. After all, HP had long been pushing Microsoft's Media Center platform as the foundation for tomorrow's digital lifestyles--and Media Center products don't work with the iPod. No surprise, this is the explanation given now by HP to explain HP's departure from the iPod ecosystem.

Hopefully, Hurd's iPod decision will be reflected in the months ahead as he turns his attention from cost-cutting to strategy-setting. To really restore HP's luster, he'll have to ruthlessly prune its overgrown garden of projects and initiatives, and once again focus on those that can lead to creation of its own hit products--and I'm not talking about iPod tattoos. The resulting company might never be as efficient as Dell, as big as IBM or as cool as Apple. But if Hurd can pull it off, it just might be a new kind of HP--one that isn't forever being negatively compared to someone else.

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Reader Comments

Tom Cagan

August 2, 2005 04:38 AM

As a former HP Employee in the Services portion of HP Business, I feel that I can honestly say that Mr. Hurd is in over his head... I was brought to HP to set up a new Digital Copier Service organization within the IPG Group (Printing). With over 30 years of experience in copier and high end printing systems, I was asked to provide "input" to allow HP to compete in this new venture. All of the suggestions that my peers and I presented to HP were completely ignored and the program floundered. The first thing that they did wrong was to place the new Digital Service Team under a service organization that had no idea of what the copier business was, or even who the customers were to be. The Service "management" continually made (and continues to make) decisions that run counter to the growth of the project. Even to the point of ignoring customer requests for extended service hours to cover product in hospital ERs (That deal would have been over 1.5 million dollars if the "Director of Service" had allowed the project to come to fruition, the business went to a competitor). HP also has up to three sales representatives calling on the same customer, all doing the same basic task. Until HP can rid itself of the extra levels of "good guy" managers and a too large sales staff and get rid of the thieving "Partners", they will never go anywhere in the copier or high speed printer world.

Blake Clark

August 2, 2005 11:02 PM

I don't really understand this decision. HP has no viable alternative to offer in place of the iPod. Why not continue to sell iPods while developing its own player, then end the Apple agreement when the new HP mp3 player is ready. Instead, HP opts to drop Apple and likely pass on the Christmas sales this year (and maybe next year). When given a choice between a small amount of revenue and no revenue at all, HP chose the latter.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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