HP's decade-long departure

HP’s sudden departure from a business model that has sustained the company since inception is symptomatic of the passing of an era. Yesterday HP announced that it would exit the PC and tablet computer business, focusing on higher-margin “strategic priorities of cloud, solutions and software with an emphasis on enterprise, commercial and government markets.” In other words, HP is fleeing upmarket, away from a core that it will abandon to device makers.

HP management conceded that the disruptive impact of the iPad forced their hand but that hand was already quite weak from a decade of over-serving the market. The last decade offered plenty of opportunities for incumbent PC companies to adjust to the realities of mobility. However only one computer maker made the transition.

Why is that?

Consider how HP and Apple faced the changes in the PC market almost exactly a decade ago.

  • On September 3, 2001, HP announced that they would acquire Compaq.
  • On October 23, 2001, Apple announced the iPod.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But what would any reasonable person have done? The PC industry was no longer young but still thriving, why not consolidate? Consolidation is a natural and well-reasoned practice for maturing industries. You get rid of over-capacity, you consolidate overhead, “leverage synergies” and boost margins.

And it’s not like they were ignoring innovation. Compaq had a growing line of PDAs, so there were plenty of diversification opportunities. Microsoft was offering Pocket PC and the Phone edition was on the roadmap. HP was clearly watching mobility carefully.

Contrast that with Apple’s predicament. Which aspiring manager would want to deal with the disaster that was Apple at the time? Apple was struggling with a declining Mac business and had just re-booted it with OS X but it seemed a quixotic effort. Moving to music players seemed desperate (and late). Margins were low, commodity vendors were lining up, record labels offered resistance, they did not have any IP or any DRM and nothing but Mac users as target audience.

As it turns out, the path of sustaining and the path of disruption diverged that moment in time a decade ago. Companies like HTC, Apple and RIM were embryonic in their device businesses vs. Goliaths like Microsoft, HP and Dell. But they grew, at first slowly, but at all times profitably.

By the time their success was worth noticing, in 2004, HP and Dell decided to dabble in devices. But all their efforts were half-hearted. They did not crave profits but growth and share. HP’s PDAs and phones never received management attention. How do I know? Because they relied on off-the-shelf components for everything including software. It indicated that the value to be offered was in “leveraging” (there’s that word again) their brand and distribution. The value of HP was not to build something great–something that required blood, sweat and tears.

The result was a set of mediocre experiences while the (now incumbent) Apple was iterating rapidly into new directions. By the time the future was self-evident, it was too late to build foundations. HP did the right thing to acquire Palm, but they did it far too late. In 2010 the game was over.

How cruel.

But that’s the nature of unforeseeable growth: you cannot foresee what will happen and plans never work out. Data and planning don’t help. The lesson is that you need to plan for that which cannot be planned. When you are at your peak you must assume failure is imminent and when you are at the trough you must assume success is inevitable.

All failures of strategy are rooted in the assumption that outcomes are predictable.

This is why I expect Apple is now working on shaping the post-iPhone world.

Update: This article has also been published in the Harvard Business Review blog: HP’s Decade-Long Departure – Horace Dediu – Harvard Business Review