By Tony Baer
Ever since its humble beginnings in the Palo Alto garage, HP (NYSE:HPQ) has always been kind of a geeky company – in spite of Carly Fiorina’s superficial attempts to prod HP toward a vision thing during her aborted tenure. Yet HP keeps talking about getting back to that spiritual garage.
Software has long been the forgotten business of HP. Although – surprisingly – the software business was resuscitated under Mark Hurd’s reign (revenues have more than doubled as of a few years ago), software remains almost a rounding error in HP’s overall revenue pie.
But during Hurd’s era, there were much bigger fish to fry beyond all the internal cost cutting for which Wall Street cheered, but insiders jeered. Converged Infrastructure has been the mantra, reminding us one and all that HP was still very much a hardware company. The message remains loud and clear with HP’s recent 3PAR acquisition at a heavily inflated $2.3 billion which was concluded in spite of the interim leadership vacuum.
The dilemma that HP faces is that, yes, it is the world’s largest hardware company (they call it technology), but the bulk of that is from personal systems. Ink, anybody?
Needs to compete
The converged infrastructure strategy was a play at the CTO’s office. Yet HP is a large enough company that it needs to compete in the leagues of IBM and Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL), and for that it needs to get meetings with the CEO. Ergo, the rumors of feelers made to IBM Software’s Steve Mills, and the successful offer to Leo Apotheker, and agreement for Ray Lane as non-executive chairman.
Our initial reaction was one of disappointment; others have felt similarly. But Dennis Howlett feels that Apotheker is the right choice “to set a calm tone” that there won’t be a massive and debilitating reorg in the short term.
Under Apotheker’s watch, SAP stagnated, hit by the stillborn Business ByDesign and the hike in maintenance fees that, for the moment, made Oracle look warmer and fuzzier. Of course, you can’t blame all of SAP’s issues on Apotheker; the company was in a natural lull cycle as it was seeking a new direction in a mature ERP market.
The problem with SAP is that, defensive acquisition of Business Objects notwithstanding, the company has always been limited by a “not invented here” syndrome that has tended to blind the company to obvious opportunities – such as inexplicably letting strategic partner IDS Scheer slip away to Software AG. Apotheker’s shortcoming was not providing the strong leadership needed to jolt SAP out of its inertia.
Instead, Apotheker’s – and Ray Lane’s for that matter – value proposition is that they know the side of the enterprise business applications market that HP doesn’t. That’s the key to this transition.
The next question becomes acquisitions. HP has a lot on its plate already. It took at least 18 months for HP to digest the $14 billion acquisition of EDS, providing a critical mass IT services and data center outsourcing business. It is still digesting nearly $7 billion of subsequent acquisitions of 3Com, 3PAR, and Palm to make its converged infrastructure strategy real.
HP might be able to get backing to make new acquisitions, but the dilemma is that Converged Infrastructure is a stretch in the opposite direction from business software. So it’s not just a question of whether HP can digest another acquisition; it’s an issue of whether HP can strategically focus in two different directions that ultimately might come together, but not for a while.
So let’s speculate about software acquisitions.
SAP, the most logical candidate, is, in a narrow sense, relatively “affordable” given that its stock is roughly about 10 – 15 percent off its 2007 high. But SAP would be obviously the most challenging given the scale; it would be difficult enough for HP to digest SAP under normal circumstances, but with all the converged infrastructure stuff on its plate, it’s back to the question of how can you be in two places at once. Infor is a smaller company, but as it is also a polyglot of many smaller enterprise software firms, would present HP additional integration headaches that it doesn’t need.
HP may have little choice but to make a play for SAP if IBM or Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) were unexpectedly to actively bid. Otherwise, its best bet is to revive the relationship, which would give both HP and SAP the time to acclimate. But in a rapidly consolidating technology market, who has the luxury of time these days?
Salesforce.com (NYSE:CRM) would make a logical stab as it would reinforce HP Enterprise Services’ (formerly EDS) outsourcing and BPO business. It would be far easier for HP to get its arms around this business. The drawback is that Salesforce.com would not be very extensible as an application set, as it uses a proprietary stored procedures database architecture. That would make it difficult to integrate with other prospective ERP SaaS acquisitions, which would otherwise be the next logical step to growing the business software footprint.
Informatica (NASDAQ:INFA) is often brought up – if HP is to salvage its Neoview and Knightsbridge BI business, it would need a data integration engine to help bolster it. Better yet, buy Teradata (NYSE:TDC), which is one of the biggest resellers of Informatica PowerCenter – that would give HP far more credible presence in the analytics space. Then it will have to ward off Oracle – which has an even more pressing need for Informatica to fill out the data integration piece in its Fusion middleware stack – for Informatica. But with Teradata, there would at least be a real anchor for the Informatica business.
HP has to decide what kind of company it needs to be, as Tom Kucharvy summarized well a few weeks back. Can HP afford to converge itself in another direction? Can it afford not to? Leo Apotheker has a heck of a listening tour ahead of him.