2013-08-01

Hewlett Packard, once renowned and beloved, has fallen. While the Autonomy writedown, the board spying scandal and the Mark Hurd affair grabbed headlines and our attention, less obvious has been the change in its core values and actions reflecting those values. Simply put, the company has strayed far from its roots of what once made it great. As an exercise, let's take a look at some remarks by David Packard (taken from his early 90's book, "The HP Way") to see if the company still adheres to them 20 years after publication of the book.

"When Bill Hewlett and I put together the initial plans for our business enterprise in 1937. we hadn't yet focused our interest and energies on the field of electronic instrumentation. What we did decide, however, was that we wanted to direct our efforts toward making important technical contributions to the advancement of science, industry, and human wellfare. It was a lofty, ambitious goal. But right from the beginning, Bill and I knew we didn't want to be a "me-too" company merely copying products already on the market. To this day, HP continually strives to develop products that represent true advancement."

Witness one of the newest additions to HP's lineup of laptop computers.

Looks awfully similar to Apple's Macbook Air doesn't it? Worse yet is that they weren't even the first ones to rip off the industrial design of the Macbook Air. That honor goes to ASUS and their Zenbook product line.

There are companies that thrive by actively stealing technologies and ripping off designs super aggressively (cough Samsung cough). But to these companies' credit, they go about their duplication and reverse engineering efforts with incredible speed, gutso, and determination. They bar no holds in competing and doing everything in their power to win, and for that I respect them, though I do not admire them.

When you copy half assedly, you get the worst of both worlds. You lose respect and you don't even make money.

When deciding whether to go forward with the 32 bit computer business that would pit HP squarely against IBM's mainframe business, "Bill Hewlett's sage advice had always been, "Don't try to take a fortified hill, especially if the army on top is bigger than your own. Omega was case in point. The project was cancelled ... [but] if we could scale it back to a sixteen-bit machine and simplify the operating system, we might have a promining product. So the Omega development program was redirected and renamed "Alpha." The result was a sophisticated, low-cost, sixteen-bit machine for processing small to medium-sized on-line business transactions. Alpha became HP's first generas-purpose computer, introduced in 1972 as the HP3000. The HP3000 ... is one of the computer industry's most enduring success stories. More than twenty years after its introduction, its descendant machines are just now entering their obsolescent phase."

When the iPad had 90% market share and near complete mindshare of the Tablet market a few years ago, HP lauched the Touchbook, an undifferentiated product at the same price point as the iPad. It was never relevant other than during its brief $99 firesale during the holiday season of 2011.

Since then, products like the Kindle Fire and the Nexus 7 have shown themselves to be worthy alternatives by offering a lower price point and smaller form factor to consumers. While their overall success is debatable (the Kindle Fire reportedly isn't doing all too well lately and the Nexus 7 still only sold about 10MM units in 2012), they have certainly cemented themselves in our minds as products at least worth considering.

"Just as it has in the past, our growth in the future will come from new products... By new products, I mean products that will make real contributions to technology not products that copy what someone else has done. This must be our standrd in the future just as it has been in the past."

At least in the consumer space, I can't remember the last great product HP has created. I wonder if they have created anything of note after the inkjet printers of the early 90's. Perhaps there have been great technical breakthroughs that weren't productized well, a symptom that Microsoft Research has always struggled with (remember the surface table?). I do hear that HP makes quality server and networking equipment though.

I've ripped on HP throught this post but I want to make one thing clear: I have an undying affection for the company. I grew up just minutes away from its headquarters and my first job in my life was at HP Labs as a research intern. I know that its engineers are talented, wonderful people. It pains me to see it in its current state.

It will be a happy day in my life if and when the company once again becomes a technical leader and a great place for engineers to work.