What it means if HP dumps its PC business

A move that recalls IBM's 2004 shift would assert the post-PC future is real, and accelerate a shift to new-gen devices and strategic back-office IT

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Of course, IBM long had a strong business selling to business -- its PC business was never core -- so it could more easily spin out the PC business than HP can. After all, if HP spins out the printer-and-ink business at the same time -- that business logically pairs with the PC business -- it loses its biggest chunk of income. (At one point, HP's profits derived only from its ink sales.) That will constrain its ability to invest in new areas, at least during the transition period. But that's par for the course for truly strategic change, and the real issue is not the effects on the quarterly profits but whether HP -- a company that has been reeling from bad management under Carly Fiorina and Mark Hurd, and the resulting culture wars for years -- can adjust internally.

Why might HP take this risk? Because coasting along as is would likely doom it to the same kind of irrelevancy that companies such as Nokia, Nortel, Novell, and Research in Motion found themselves in as they clung to the past and resisted the future. 

WebOS dies, ending HP's universal-platform aspirations
One consequence already of HP's post-PC rethink is the death of WebOS. HP's vision for WebOS had been to make it the new platform for the whole gamut of devices, from smartphones to tablets to PCs. But its first WebOS tablet, the TouchPad, failed in delivering a compelling experience, so it's not surprising that it ended up on the chopping block as an expensive attempt to hold onto PC relevance. HP also axed its WebOS-based Pre and Pixi smartphones, and left the future of WebOS itself uncertain.

Without the PC business, that vision made less sense -- unless HP decided to keep its client business and purge just the PC part. It could have kept the smartphone, tablet, and perhaps printer businesses as the basis for its post-PC vision, as devices that are much more heavily integrated into the back end (cloud services, policy management, servers, and networking). In that non-PC post-PC future, WebOS could be HP's hoped-for golden ticket. But HP decided otherwise, and instead retreated fully from its WebOS-fueled vision of having a universal client platform akin to what Apple has created with Mac OS X and the iOS mobile OS derived from it.

Jettison the life rafts to save the ship?
Spinning out the PC business and acquiring Autonomy would make HP into a mini IBM in terms of being about services and back-office tech. HP has been singing that song for a while, but shedding the PC business could be what the company needs to make its aspirations real.

CEO Apotheker is widely regarded as ruthless, even if his effectiveness first at SAP and now HP is questioned. Getting rid of the PC business would be a ruthless move to push HP in that back-office direction. By getting rid of the life raft that is the PC business, HP would have to truly make the transition or else fade away. There'd be no turning back.

That's a big risk, but in the face of the post-PC evolution, it a sensible one. Whether HP makes this move -- and whether it pulls it off successfully -- it's clear that we're truly in the middle of a fundamental shift in technology that will affect not just vendors but users and IT, too.

This story, "What it means if HP dumps its PC business," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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