There's an intriguing multidimensional chess game going on that's pitted Hewlett-Packard against its leading software partners as HP, under new CEO Leo Apotheker, is beginning to test just how deeply it can push into various software markets without nuking those strategic partnerships.
A perfect example is HP's leap last week into head-to-head competition with Microsoft Windows by putting HP's WebOS inside not only its new smartphones and tablets but also future PCs and other products.
Is this an apocalyptic slap across the face and a demand to settle things once and for all with pistols at 20 paces?
Is it an inevitable move by HP that has less to do with Microsoft than it does with Apotheker's vision of what HP needs to become in order to grow in relevance and significance among both consumers and business customers?
Is it a recognition by HP that in a rapidly changing world where mobility is driving innovation and customer value, HP needs to be more of a central player and less of a commodity bystander?
Is it a pragmatic and forward-looking gambit by HP to realign its deep-seated partnership with Microsoft away from consumer devices and more toward high-end, high-margin information appliances, such as the $2,000,000 HP Enterprise Data Warehouse Appliance the companies jointly introduced last month?
I think the HP move—for all of its bluntness, and for all of the short-term tension it will likely cause with Microsoft—is in fact a combination of all of the factors cited above and one that underscores how profoundly different the IT industry and its partnerships are today than was the case just a few years ago.
After all, it was only five months ago that Oracle and HP executives loudly and proudly proclaimed their renewed commitment to one another, reaffirming that the issues surrounding Mark Hurd's move to Oracle would not outweigh the value and mutual benefit the companies placed on their 30-year-long strategic alliance.
But then HP named Apotheker as CEO, and that hiring of the former SAP CEO proved to be an incursion too far for Oracle CEO Larry Ellison—and today, the HP-Oracle alliance lies in tatters and is all but dead.
Think of that: a 30-year alliance spanning more than 100,000 jointly supported customers and billions of dollars in revenue reduced to a shell in a matter of months because both companies felt that as significant as their shared past has been, that history could not supercede the need for each company to focus solely on its own self-interest as they moved into the future.
For HP and Microsoft, yes, it's a short-term shocker: Microsoft sees its hegemony over the PC industry further challenged in the wake of the Apple iPad's stunning success among corporations, and HP now steps forth on its own into a world where the only thing bigger than its potential is the risk it faces in having almost no developer ecosystem or support.
As my colleague Fritz Nelson wrote last week in a column called, "HP Goes All-In With WebOS":