The gods of deal-making had a laugh on me Friday, the day I uncorked the NewsWire's first podcast. Inside those 5 minutes and 46 seconds of iPod-ready audio I took note that HP's podcast about HP Fellow Alan Kay was already out of date, because Kay had just announced he was leaving HP — and not building the new Internet visualization operating system Croquet for HP. Time moves a little too fast for corporate-level podcasts to keep up, I said, but I figured HP's podcasting would get better. Because the company was reselling Apple's iPods, after all, as part of its enterprises.
Not any more. And while the HP change on Friday showed me that anybody can get surprised by changes at HP today, the shift away from selling iPods shows that HP is taking a tack back toward its heartland businesses. That's good news for the customers moving off HP 3000s and onto HP's other enterprise environment, HP-UX.
HP and Apple parted ways on the iPod deal — Apple innovated, in that one, while HP provided the shelf space in stores where their printers are king — over money, some say. HP never made much profit on the iPods, according to the Wall Street Journal. Apple was in control in the relationship, so much so that HP lagged in bringing out all of the iPod models, including some that seemed to fit nicely with HP's strategy, like the iPod that also stores color photos.
But some analysts say the split-up is another sign that new CEO Mark Hurd is shutting down the parts of HP dearest to former CEO Carly Fiorina's heart. HP remains in the entertainment business, selling Windows Media PCs and its big-screen TVs. But for how long is any podcaster's guess. It appears to be time to focus at HP, something the HP-UX customers will be glad to hear.
HP sold about 8 percent of all the iPods Apple moved last quarter, but HP-UX-related sales probably accounted for a lot more dollars. Best of all, the HP-UX sales earned HP enterprise-level profits — though not the level of profits 3000-based operations have earned — rather than razor-thin consumer-level profits. HP-UX is one of just a few odd ducks in the HP pond these days, along with the OpenVMS operating system and software that drives the NonStop line. HP-UX in particular is going to need more attention to hold its customers against the obvious economic advantages of Linux solutions. HP 3000 customers have learned that critical mass is vital to keeping a business alive inside HP, no matter how well it performs technically.
It's true, the executives who handled the iPod deal work independently of those who hold HP-UX hands in HP. But the new CEO is asking questions like "Why are we in that business, anyway?" Fiorina started up as many ventures as she killed off during her five years. In the long term, HP will be best served by the one quality that made the company a good choice for enterprise systems: innovation. Selling other people's stuff reduced HP to the caliber of a Dell or Best Buy. HP's unable to offer its own player for another year now, according to the terms of the Apple deal. Marketing is hard enough at HP without having reseller dealers keep you out of opportunities.
Clearing the HP retail shelf space for somebody else's innovations might be music to Apple's ears. It's a hell of a testament to innovation, at that. But the HP experiment with becoming the new Sony looks like it might be headed toward its swan song. Those printer profits from that shelf space need to work for HP's enterprise customers, like the former 3000 owners now choosing Unix — at least if those customers don't want to strike sour notes when HP-UX needs R&D help in the coming years.