HP's choice: Whitman to lead the witless

Former eBay queen Meg Whitman is now top dog at HP, where the bar's been set so low, she may have a fighting chance

You know how it is with blind dates. Sometimes it seems like you were meant for each other. Sometimes you start planning your exit strategy before the salad course is over. (Faking an epileptic fit has always worked for me.)

So it goes with HP, which hired Léo Apotheker on the rebound after the Mark Hurd scandal, virtually sight unseen, but came to regret it within less than a year. Now it's hooked up with the nice-if-unexciting girl next door (minus the nice part).

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Meg Whitman, unsuccessful in her attempts last year to gain entry into California's crazily mismanaged sex-scandalized governor's mansion, now gets the keys to HP's crazily mismanaged sex-scandalized boardroom.

The good news? HP doesn't care if she hired an illegal for a housekeeper. Also, the odds of Whitman having a former softcore porn actress turned marketing babe on the payroll as a secret paramour? Not very high.

Welcome to the wacky world of HP, where you too could become CEO -- and given enough time, you just might.

Just a few weeks ago, HP seemed to be headed down a safe, steady, if boring road, becoming an enterprise services company like IBM. Now everything is up in the air. HP may actually decide to keep its PC business going after all. If it does, is there any reason to not resurrect WebOS and the HP TouchPad?

But the decision to go with Whitman is not getting a lot of love on the tech side of the table. InfoWorld's Ted Samson notes that Whitman combines the charm of a Larry Ellison with the market savvy of a Steve Ballmer (though less hairy or sweaty than either), making her a less than apt choice for pulling HP out of its doldrums. IFW's Bill Snyder predicts that nothing at HP will change -- which you have to see as more bad news for the struggling tech giant.

ITworld's Chris Nerney sarcastically predicts Whitman will have HP buy Skype from Microsoft for $11.5 billion so that she can "turn around and flip it to those idiots at Yahoo for $9.1 billion."

My completely unscientific survey of the coverage of her appointment suggests that sentiment is running roughly 4:1 against.

Meanwhile, HP board member Ray Lane staunchly defended the appointment, at one point comparing Whitman to Ronald Reagan. Whether he was talking about the former president's brilliant speechmaking skills or his extremely selective memory under close questioning is as yet unclear.

Still, you gotta give her props. As Forbes points out, she's 1 of only 14 women to have amassed a billion-dollar fortune without inheriting any of it. (Others on that august list: Oprah and J. K. Rowling.) With expectations so low, anything Whitman does short of driving the company completely into the ground will likely be considered a victory.

Let's recap HP's last decade of history, shall we? There was the Carly Fiorina era, which did not end well. That nasty bit of business with HP chair Patricia Dunn hiring private eyes to spy on reporters. Then Mark (Obscene but not) Hurd and his marketing squeeze. Now the Léo Apotheker flameout.

Do you get the feeling maybe the problem isn't who sits in the CEO's chair, but the board itself? Maybe the board members should fire themselves. Unfortunately they'd probably insist on picking their own replacements, and HP would be back where it started.

Who do you think should run HP? And don't say me -- I already have one job I can barely do. Nominate your CEOs below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "HP's choice: Whitman to lead the witless," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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