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HP's 'vision' should embrace Apple, not copy it

Owning the future. Without buying the past

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Open...and Shut Hewlett-Packard needs to grow, but its chief executive Leo Apotheker has made it very clear that he intends to boost HP's fortunes in a very non-Oracle sort of way.

That is, rather than buying the past - snapping up legacy software companies and essentially buying their customer relationships and maintenance revenue streams - he wants to buy the future, with an emphasis on security and analytics software. It's a bold move for a historically staid organization.

Can HP pull it off? And what should the company have on its shopping list?

All sorts of advice are being offered, but every list I've seen looks largely the same - try this one or this one for starters. Most pundits are suggesting that HP should buy other big-name software vendors like Symantec or Teradata, or become more of a services company like IBM.

Why not? These are the easy choices. They're also the ones that are almost certain to keep HP looking like a bigger version of itself, rather than as an innovator.

HP really doesn't need to buy revenue or customers. It needs to buy a vision, and the most compelling vision for cloud and mobile - the two areas it hammered in the strategy call - are not found in any of the big software vendors. So buying big won't necessarily help HP.

One thing that seems certain to fail is to try to out-Apple Apple. As CNET's Erica Ogg points out, Apotheker's vision seems to be a webOS version of the Apple iOS/Mac OS X/iTunes ecosystem. "Software and services that are tied to HP hardware and that you can't get on any other company's devices," she says.

That's ambitious, but probably not a winning strategy. Apotheker's vision "to provide seamless, secure, context-aware experiences for a connected world" doesn't work if that vision begins and ends with HP devices. Why? Because most of us don't use and won't use HP devices. Apple is about the only company that seems to be able to generate the level of devotion that would convince people to do all their device/computer shopping with one company, and even it is starting to lose customers to Android on the smart phone - and has a still-small market share on computers.

Hence, a truly connected world needs cross-platform apps that aren't tied to webOS, iOS, or Android, but rather follow the user between her different, proliferating devices. That means HTML5 and other open standards. Ironically, Apotheker seems to get this when it comes to the cloud. "If you want to be in the cloud business, it has to be on a large scale, it has to be multilingual, and you have to be able to serve anyone anywhere," he said. However, he doesn't seem to grasp its importance as pertains to apps running in that cloud.

They're not all going to be running on webOS.

HP would be far better off creating an ecosystem optimized for HP devices but that also embraces other devices, including Apple's. That sort of open standards approach would find a great reception among app developers who are increasingly worried about Apple's honey pot.

If HP were to focus on an open innovation strategy, suddenly its shopping list becomes easier to define, and the company's prospects look brighter.

Starting with the enterprise market where HP is perhaps most comfortable, it makes a lot of sense to take a long, hard look at Red Hat, as The VAR Guy proposes. Red Hat is increasingly the basis for private and public cloud initiatives, and thereby offers HP a platform upon which to build a robust cloud portfolio, and provides a great base for launching a big virtualization business to challenge VMware.

That's the big deal. But a range of smaller deals with Cloudera, Splunk, and/or DataStax come to mind that could complement the Red Hat cornerstone.

Or maybe HP doesn't need to do anything.

Thus far, HP has largely reverted to type, according to Wells Fargo senior analyst Jason Maynard by "simply repackag[ing] a lot of existing hardware and software products into cloud services." And maybe that's not all bad. Some pundits indicate that HP's problem is not so much a matter of buying more software assets, but rather making existing assets deliver sales results.

I don't buy it, and I don't believe HP's management does, either.

HP is doing some cool things with webOS, and it has an already-strong software and hardware foundation within the company. What the company needs is vision, and the vision that has been opening eyes and wallets in the enterprise industry, in particular, is open source, open standards, open systems.

HP can be an open alternative to Apple, in much the way Google has been trying to do, albeit with more of a consumer bent.

Is it a guaranteed win? No. But then, HP's past strategy definitely isn't, either. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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