HP: Is This Change We Can Believe In?

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HP continues to confound customers, analysts and just about everyone else in the IT industry. Considering that it has retained its position as one of the top drivers of enterprise technology for nearly two decades, the fact that it seems to thrive on chaos only seems to strengthen its reputation.

And yet many people remain unsettled over the latest changes: Leo Apotheker out as CEO and Meg Whitman in. As expected, there are questions over Whitman's ability to handle a firm like HP, having risen to fame at online retailer eBay (How many Beanie Babies equal a single ProLiant server?), but the same could be said for Aphotheker, Mark Hurd, Carly Fiorina and a host of other past chieftains.

Rather, many observers have already glossed over the name and face in the front office and are wondering whether the company's long-term strategy, if there is one, makes any sense. News.com's Larry Dignan, for one, says the constant shifting of personnel, direction, product focus and the like hurts what enterprises seek most in a supplier/partner like HP: continuity. Without it, organizations have a hard time making long-term plans - already a difficult prospect when dealing with paradigm-shifting technologies like virtualization and the cloud.

The problem, though, according to InformationWeek's Fritz Nelson, is that HP's basic strategy lacks definition, yet there is no sign that Whitman or Chairman Ray Lane are open to any big ideas other than to keep or ditch the company's PC line. Is the company going to refocus on core hardware and software infrastructure? Will it shift to services like IBM? And what, exactly, does it hope to achieve in the cloud? If the company is truly on autopilot, then it really doesn't matter who's behind the wheel.

In that light, perhaps a key development going forward is how HP leverages recent acquisitions like Autonomy. The purchase brings in much-needed expertise in areas like search, analytics, e-discovery and records management. But if the company intends to make a big push in this direction, will it still have the resources to develop innovative hardware platforms. Should it even try?

Clearly, says PC Magazine's Joel Santo Domingo, HP's biggest and most immediate problem is a loss of customer confidence. To regain it, the company has to make some hard decisions about its future direction. If it intends to exit the PC and tablet businesses, best to do it quick and not look back even if the short-term blowback is brutal.

In this, though, corporate identity is a tough thing to shed. The company has long prided itself as a one-stop shop for all things IT - from PCs and printers to servers, storage, networking to software and services. Giving up that clout will be a tough pill to swallow.

And yet, in an age where enterprise infrastructure is growing more diverse by the minute, it seems almost a fool's errand for any one company to try to provide all things to all people.

At this point in time, it doesn't seem like HP will continue on that course. Ultimately, however, the decision to shed or retain businesses and product lines will come down to a simple matter of dollars and cents.