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

Hewlett-Packard is looking to dump -- er, spin out its PC business, and confirms that it has bought database and analytics vendor Autonomy for $10.3 billion. Plus, it is discontinuing its WebOS-based tablets and smartphones. Prepare for a major shift in the tech business and an acceleration of the "consumerized IT" trend in which business users increasingly drive technology adoption and usage -- and traditional IT moves further and further into the back office.

On the face of it, such moves would mirror what IBM did in 2004 when it sold its PC business to Lenovo to concentrate on its software and services business. That shocked the industry, and IBM suffered a while as it made the transition to a vendor focused on the back end of business, not people's desktops. But the strategy proved very effective, as PCs got more and more commoditized and letting go of them allowed IBM to venture where the profits were.

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The Autonomy buy -- if that happens -- would signal not just more momentum for HP in the back office but for the kind forward-looking technology that is a key driver today: smart, contextual analytics. IBM, Oracle, and SAP bought traditional business intelligence vendors a few years back (Cognos, Hyperion, and Business Objects, respectively) to add old-school historic analysis and reporting tools to their ERP systems. But the strategic action today is in looking forward, not backward, so technologies such as Autonomy's contextual search better fit that direction. Big data, semantic analysis, analysis of unstructured data, social sentiment analysis -- all that is about growing the business, and Autonomy plays more in that contextual space than the competitors do.

Key implication: The post-PC era is truly upon us
Last week, one of IBM's engineers behind the original PC said the PC platform has reached end of life, as the rise of tablets and cloud-basd services were reinventing what personal computing means. He's right, and new HP CEO Léo Apotheker has been stressing since he came on the job that HP needed to move out of the commodity consumer business and into the higher-margin enterprise business.

Most of the time, you don't need everything a PC brings to the table, and the complexity of dealing with malware, software licenses, patches, and more takes a real toll on both IT and individual users. Most of the time, for most people, an iPad, Chromebook, or Atrix Lapdock is all you need. Today, they can't completely replace a PC, but in the next few years, I believe they will for most people; we'll see homes with just one PC and several iPads or other new-generation devices, and businesses will start to treat PCs as special equipment for only those users who really need them.

Looking at the trend, it would make sense for HP to get out of the PC business while it's riding relatively high and can get a decent price for it. (Dell, which has been neglecting its PC business in favor of moving more into small-business back-end technology business, won't be so lucky.)

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