HP's Whitman Faces Skeptical CIOs At Gartner Event

CEO Meg Whitman faced tough customer questions during her keynote interview at the Gartner Symposium--but will CIOs be persuaded by her answers?
Citing the company's instrumental role in the creation of converged infrastructure, Whitman shifted to HP's role as a "solution provider" that also "makes products." To a certain extent, the statement could be seen as deflecting from the company's PC woes; though a market-share leader, HP suffered bigger-than-average declines in the slumping space--a point Whitman did not address in playfully contesting Gartner's contention that Lenovo has displaced her company as the market's overall leader. She also rarely addressed PCs directly, aside from explaining that she decided not to abandon the business shortly after becoming CEO. Instead, she discussed how the Personal Systems Group would evolve as necessary, with tablets cited as an example.

Nevertheless, Whitman said enough to substantiate the "solution provider" label. Much of what she said had been declared before, but she articulated enough goals and measuring sticks that the areas of emphasis could be easily identified.

Information security was one such emphasis. "It's one of our priorities because it's one of yours," Whitman told the audience. She cited holdings including ArcSight, TippingPoint, Fortify, and Autonomy--which she said played a major role in protecting the London Olympics--as strengths that would allow HP to excel. She also, in another nod to her confidence in the company's engineering prowess, said secure hardware is in the company's pipeline.

Genovese pointed out that the security focus was enterprise-centric, with much of the attention focused "behind the firewall." Whitman at first appeared to challenge the characterization before remarking, "Our focus is on the enterprise because that's where the big vulnerabilities are."

Information optimization, essentially HP's take on big data, was another focal point. The ability to make sense of unstructured data, Whitman said, is enormously important, remarking that if the capability had been available when she ran eBay, the company could have saved millions of dollars by more easily identifying scam auctions. "Autonomy does this better than anyone else," she said, adding that marketing applications are on HP's radar.

With moderators reminding her that "8,000 IT leaders are here, all ready with checkbooks," Whitman turned to converged clouds as another major focus. She remarked that some see the company as a latecomer, but said, "Our heritage is in heterogeneous environments," a tradition she linked to the company's ability to deliver "your cloud, your way." Whitman emphasized several successes, such as the company's large installation of private clouds, and touted HP's centralized, open architecture--which she said has been one of her goals as CEO "since day one"--as central to providing customer choice.

On the topic of competitors, Whitman remained steadfast, though she sometimes relied on easy fallbacks, such as the company's engineering talent, to justify herself. The moderators pointed out that Chambers had softened from his aforementioned comment, but Whitman quipped that though she and the Cisco CEO are friends, "I'd rather have my hand than John's hand." She rejected fears of commoditization in the networking and storage spaces, citing Project Moonshot among other initiatives, and pointed out that HP has a 41% share of the networking market in China, a fast-growing region.

When asked if she, as a Microsoft partner, objected to the Surface tablet, Whitman dismissed the idea, welcoming competition. She did, however, assert that the much-ballyhooed device will be unlikely to crack the enterprise market. She mentioned its keyboard as a particular disadvantage insofar as a "PC-like experience" is concerned and claimed HP's SmartJacket-equipped tablets represent better, more versatile options.

Whitman also said the company will likely need to introduce a smartphone at some point, but said not to expect one in 2013.

Near the end, Whitman was asked, given her concession that HP is rebuilding, how customers can judge the company's progress one year from now. She responded by re-emphasizing the talking points to which she had returned throughout the keynote.

She said that HP, as a solution provider, should be judged according to how much easier it has made customers' jobs, and how much more successful it has made their businesses. She cited more efficient data centers and clouds that "don't lock you into a closed stack" as part of the process.

Speaking more specifically, she said the company should lead the converged infrastructure market, and that its products should be "number one" in enterprise business.

"Do you think of us a year from now as helping you do your job more effectively and helping you turn IT in a strategic weapon to grow your company?" she asked.

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