Opinion

If HP wants to be the new IBM, does Google want to be the new Apple?

So I go away for two weeks and all hell breaks loose. First, Google decides to buy Motorola's mobile phone operation, then HP says it's getting out of the PC business and discontinuing WebOS products.

Now, the Google thing makes sense, kind of, if you buy the company's rationale that it was acquiring the business for its patents. But it also opens a can of worms with Google competing against the manufacturers that have licensed the Android operating system it says it is trying to protect by buying the Motorola patents. If Google was purely interested in the patents, it would sell off the Motorola mobility hardware business. Could Google be looking at taking the Apple iPhone route by making the hardware and software for smartphones? Possibly, but that could be risky for Android.

Now to the HP bombshell. The closure of the WebOS operation so soon after it acquired Palm last year is pretty embarrassing and says a lot about how difficult it is for computer businesses to break into the tablet and smartphone arenas. This comes only seven months after HP CEO Leo Apotheker told the BBC "I hope one day people will say 'this is as cool as HP', not 'as cool as Apple'" and five months after he revealed plans to install WebOS on as many devices as possible (including PCs).

As for the PC business, it can be spun as following IBM's successful lead in selling off its PC operation to Lenovo but it appears a bit more drastic from here. After all, HP bought Compaq to get to the top of the PC heap and it's not been backward about coming forward in the past when burnishing its credentials as the biggest PC maker in the world. So it says something about the PC business when the largest company says it's getting the hell out of the market.

As others have pointed out, it gives a fairly hefty endorsement to the argument advanced by Apple CEO Steve Jobs in July last year that PCs were "going to be like trucks. Less people will need them". And while HP has done a pretty good job of outDell-ing Dell over the last few years, it didn't take long at all before it gave up on trying to outApple Apple. Instead, it's going to try outIBM IBM.

The temptation for Google could be to meld the smartphone OS and Motorola hardware business and become the latest company to try to outApple Apple. Plus ca change.

This was first published in August 2011

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