CEO Leo Apotheker may be on the verge of leveraging HP's core competencies in a way that few organizations can, thanks to its new focus on the cloud.
HP's new CEO, Leo Apotheker, sees the broad pattern that Apple represents. My dominant impression from watching him at the HP Summit Tuesday is that he understands the cloud model and is trying to reposition HP to do what Apple did -- from a more enterprise-oriented perspective.
The possibility that HP will produce "cool" devices that wow the younger generation is about as likely as future subway ads showing Apotheker balancing on a skateboard or playing air guitar. Critics say HP's WebOS can't possibly displace Apple's iOS. But HP doesn't need it to do that. It doesn't need to be a really cool device maker or to grab market share from Apple. It only needs to produce mobile devices that are a little more useful than Apple's in the corporate environment.
Likewise, the possibility that HP will offer infrastructure as a cloud service at prices that undercut Amazon's is equally remote. But it doesn't need to do that either. It only needs to offer services that are useful to a business struggling to coordinate on-premises with off-premises compute cycles.
I've heard the skeptics say that HP doesn't need its own mobile operating system because it can't be another Apple or another Amazon. But to me, it doesn't need to be. All it needs is a chance to apply the lessons of cloud integration and distribution in an enterprise setting. Its WebOS devices could synch without prompting with the end user's desktop, order documents composed on the plane to be printed on the closest HP printer, and direct work orders captured on a tablet to initiate business processes on central HP servers.
Will you travel with only your iPhone one day, running Windows applications in virtualized form on any handy display? Maybe, but it might happen sooner with a mobile operating system that already runs comfortably on top of Windows. HP doesn't need to be as cool as Apple or as lean and cheap as Amazon's EC2. It only needs to be not quite as expensive as the former and a little more enterprise useful than either of them.
Whether HP can pull off such an act remains to be seen. The sense I get from Apotheker is that he's learned the recent lessons of the marketplace and is intent on applying them to the 300,000 employees of the huge HP organization.
There are many reasons why he won't be able to duplicate the success of Apple -- but he doesn't need to. He only needs to pose as a viable alternative. It's a young marketplace and there's room for a competitor who integrates the smartphone more easily with the Windows PC, who leverages the cloud to supply, not more Beatles music, but smoother enterprise operations.
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