There's nothing that HP and the other PC makers can do about this problem. It's not their OS. Frankly, it's not even their hardware -- Intel pretty much designs the guts of PCs, with major input from Microsoft. The fact that Intel thinks a touchscreen is both a new idea and the PC's salvation should frighten the entire industry. Besides, nearly everything is built by parts makers in Asia; at most, companies like HP can fiddle around the edges, such as designing power-savings capabilities for their hardware for central management by IT.
One solution is to fight a proprietary ecosystem with another proprietary ecosystem -- as seen in Microsoft's experiment with its Surface tablet effort. The other solution would be for the PC industry to act as a cabal, but that would raise antitrust concerns and require each PC maker to cede the hope of breaking out of the pack -- as they all aspire to, at least in their boardroom discussions.
If I were Whitman, I'd certainly encourage a distinct visual style for HP PCs. I'd also try to capture some sense of cool, cutting-edge personality in the technologies I chose to adopt in my PCs and the surrounding ecosystem where I had some control (such as printers and storage). But I don't think it's enough to compete with the Apple advantages.
HP blew its long-shot chance to join the post-PC party when it dumped WebOS, and only a miracle would let it start over on its own at this point. Adopting Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 isn't the answer, though it may be expedient. Adopting Android would give HP more control over its destiny, as well as real differentiation from everyone else (Amazon.com has shown it can be achieved with the Kindle Fire). However, that would require HP to remake its relationship with Microsoft, a big business risk that Whitman's predecessor Léo Apotheker took, then abandoned quickly.
Until the PC makers figure this out, we're likely to see Apple continue to ascend, the PC industry move more to Microsoft's direct control, and the Android axis led by Google and Samsung emerge as the real competitors to Apple.
This article, "Why the PC makers and Microsoft will never beat Apple," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.