Is the new HP just an IBM clone?

March 21, 2011, 9:00 AM UTC

By Kevin Kelleher, contributor

Behold the new HP. After a series of scandals, a change in CEOs and a rebuilding of its board, the tech giant revealed the new HP to the world: It’s still very much a company that wants to be another company — IBM.

Watching CEO Léo Apotheker and other HP (HPQ) executives present their vision last week to shareholders, analysts and reporters, it was hard not to think of IBM (IBM), the unnamed elephant sitting in HP’s boardroom.

Apotheker outlined an appealing if vague future for HP:

  • An open, online marketplace where consumers and companies alike could buy apps;
  • Features like infrastructure-as-a-service and platforms-as-a-service that allow companies to tap into cloud-based software;
  • 100 million devices running webOS, many of which will connect to HP’s infrastructure.

Some investors were hoping for much more — a radical restructuring maybe, or plans to spin off the low-margin PC division. What they got was Apotheker’s anodyne vision of an evolving IT industry, the disruptive force of cloud computing, and HP’s role as a soup-to-nuts provider. “All of us need a trusted partner to navigate this new world,” he said. “Who but HP could deliver this leadership?”

Later, CFO Catherine Lesjak mentioned the cloud again before boldly declaring that “HP is skating to where the puck is going,” (cue eye roll) and then asking, “Who else is as well positioned as HP is? Who else has as powerful and as sustained advantages?”

Notice the rhetoric here: HP isn’t saying with confidence it’s the only company to usher in the new cloud economy, it’s asking you who else can do it. Each time it did so, there was an implied answer: “IBM.” HP is even mimicking IBM in its earnings forecast. Last week, IBM estimated its earnings would grow 11.4% through 2015. This week, HP said its earnings would grow through 2014 at the nearly identical rate of 11.2%.

HP and IBM have long been rivals. Both were computing giants for decades, but while HP pinned the future on its $25 billion purchase of personal computer maker Compaq in 2002, IBM took the opposite approach, transitioning into software and IT consulting services, both areas that had more growth potential and better profit margins than the PC business.

In time, HP expanded into these areas as well, helped in good part by its $14 billion acquisition of EDS, an IT services giant. As a result, HP surpassed IBM in revenue, bringing in $126 billion in sales in its last fiscal year, compared with IBM’s $100 billion. But by other important metrics, HP still lagged: Despite smaller revenue, IBM’s net profit of $14.8 billion dwarfed HP’s $8.8 billion figure. And the market values IBM at $188 billion, double HP’s market cap of $89 billion.

And all this was in spite of severe cost cutting by Mark Hurd, Apotheker’s predecessor. Hurd’s obsession with driving up profits left the company’s staff demoralized and its ability to innovate hamstrung. Last year, IBM spent $6 billion on research and development, twice as much as HP did.

There are, of course, strengths that HP offers that IBM lacks, but these are generally areas where IBM has chosen not to do business. IBM sold its PC business, which made the popular Thinkpad laptop, to Lenovo in 2005. Today, nearly a third of HP’s revenue comes from its PC division, which has an operating profit margin of 5%. By contrast, HP’s software unit has a profit margin of 21%, but software makes up less than 2.3% of HP’s total revenue.

So software is going to be an important plank in HP’s growth strategy going forward — that is, HP is going to go hard after a core IBM competency. And like IBM, HP is moving into cloud computing, although as Michael Copeland pointed out, HP will focus further down the food chain, leaving the high-end to companies with more established cloud offerings like Oracle (ORCL) and, ahem, IBM.

In his presentation, Apotheker spoke as if he believed that HP’s access to end users would give it an advantage over IBM, as if 100 million webOS-powered devices will somehow draw consumers and companies into HP’s cloud offerings. But it’s not clear that will happen: The cloud is almost by definition independent of the operating software running devices that connect to it. Amazon (AMZN) has built a successful cloud business, Amazon Web Services, without caring which OS devices are running.

But IBM is already taking big steps into the “mid-level” cloud, too. It recently announced its own plan to build a public cloud, and this week it said it’s investing $38 million in a cloud computing data center in Singapore. Earlier this month, IBM told investors it plans to see $7 billion in revenue from cloud services by 2015. It may be that IBM is closer to the proverbial puck than HP.

So it’s not surprising that, on the eve of HP’s shareholder meeting this week, a top IBM executive sniffed that his company was “years ahead” of HP when it came to building an integrated software and services provider.

By contrast, in interviews following the meeting, Apotheker seemed on the defensive. The New York Times quoted him saying, “We are not playing catch-up to anyone, particularly IBM.” And when an Infoworld editor noted that HP’s portfolio “seems to overlap almost 100% with what IBM is doing,” Apotheker replied testily, “I would qualify it slightly differently: IBM overlaps 100% with us.”

In the end, such verbal sniping means little. Rivalries are settled in the market, and if HP can beat IBM at its own game, it will silence its critics. For now, though, HP will have to prove itself in IBM’s shadow.

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