HP Cedes Greatness to Apple

What happens when you put a software guy in charge of a hardware company? In the case of Leo Apothekar, CEO of HP, he pitches most of his hardware business—along with a chance to be a major player in mobile devices—turning a once-great hardware company into a software and services business in the process.

The Mac Observer reported earlier on Thursday that HP is killing all of its webOS devices, including the TouchPad and various post-Palm smartphones. The company also plans to sell or spin off its consumer PC business.

Listening to the earnings report conference call the company hosted Thursday afternoon, it was clear to me that Mr. Apothekar, a very successful and talented executive from SAP, doesn’t get or care about hardware. He’s more interested in remaking HP into some kind of amalgamation of IBM and SAP than he is in making great physical devices to sell to consumers.

And that’s too bad. I believe that HP’s webOS (which was acquired in the purchase of Palm in April of 2010) offered the best chance of making a whole widget empire that could compete with Apple’s iOS juggernaut.

I believe in the power of the whole widget, and I think the proof in the pudding in the awesome experience offered on the iPhone and iPad. I believe that the Android platform is a mess, and that said “mess” isn’t enough to matter on smartphones, where “good enough” is all that’s needed.

When it comes to tablets, however, demand stems from the ecosystem and the customer experience, and Android isn’t cutting it there. No apps, no unified ecosystem, no content, buggy tablets that vary from device to device, and hardware makers that try to compete on specs as if the tablet were a PC has so far added up to few Android tablets being bought by end-users.

HP could have changed that with webOS and the TouchPad. The company has the clout to forge content deals, and it has the experience to have engineered a unified software and hardware experience that would have let end users find ways to use their TouchPads like Apple’s customers found ways to use their iPads.

Pull QuoteBut it didn’t. It’s really too bad that former Apple VP Jon Rubinstein couldn’t do a better job with the first (and now only) TouchPad, but I would hazard that he had an uphill battle when the man he answered to, CEO Leo Apothekar, was a software guy.

To toot my own horn, I called this back in May when I said that only Amazon and Microsoft had what it took to compete with the iPad. In that piece, I wrote:

HP might be able to offer webOS tablets that will do well in vertical enterprise applications (presentation, remote access to the enterprise-in-the-cloud, inventory management, etc.), but I don’t see the company being a contender in the consumer space, Jon Rubinstein and the other former Apple-employees he’s collected notwithstanding.

I also hope very much that they prove me wrong.

I wish I had been wrong. I want Apple to do well (I own a tiny, all but insignificant stake in the company), but I want it to have to work hard to do so. As a consumer, I want the best products I can get, and the whole widget model produces the best computing devices.

Now, Mr. Apothekar is going to pursue licensing opportunities for webOS, perpetuating the cycle of mediocrity executed with such methodical brutality by Microsoft in the PC business and further perpetrated by Google in the mobile space with Android.

That’s what happens when you put a software guy in charge of a hardware company.