Never say "never". Smartphones back on HP agenda, 23 months after company 'permanently' exited the sector

Jul 4, 2013

In an interview with the Indian Express newspaper, Su-Yin Yam, the senior director of HP's Personal Systems Group in the Asia Pacific region confirmed that the company has not, after all, irrevocably abandoned plans to re-enter the massively expensive and hugely competitive smartphones sector. She said, "It would be silly if we say no [to a smartphone play]. HP has to be in the game."

The comments seemed to be spontaneous - and perhaps not officially sanctioned. However, had that been the case Ms. Yam would have been advised of the errors of her ways by now, and there's no sign that she has been carpeted or is in any bad odour with the powers that be.

Indeed, it appears that Su-YinYam was doing no more than echoing statements made in September of last year by HP's current CEO, Meg Whitman, when she admitted that whilst the HP smartphone might be dead and buried with a cartridge of printer ink driven through its heart, that is no guarantee that it will lie down.

At that time Meg Whitman said, “We have to ultimately offer a smartphone because in many countries of the world that is your first computing device. You know, there will be countries around the world where people may never own a tablet, or a PC or a desktop. They will do everything on the smartphone. We’re a computing company; we have to take advantage of that form factor.”

In other words, "We blew it with webOS thanks to Leo Apotheker, and we chose to exit a big, important and potentially very lucrative market. It was a mistake and we are going to rectify it".

OK, but if HP is to do so it must be whole-hearted and unstinting about it. The Palm/webOS debacle cannot be repeated if the has any pretensions to be taken seriously.

This is an excerpt from the press release HP issued to journalists at the time it acquired Palm and webOS. "The combination of HP’s global scale and financial strength with Palm’s unparalleled webOS platform will enhance HP’s ability to participate more aggressively in the fast-growing, highly profitable smartphone and connected device markets.” Etc, etc.

The original idea was that webOS would be embedded in HP PCs, tablet devices and phone handsets but vicious political infighting at the top of the company resulted in webOS first being open-sourced and then sold off to LG for it's patent value only. It was very a bad deal that cost HP dear in more ways than one.

By the way, LG does actually use webOS- in some of its TVs!

Meanwhile, back in California HP's smartphone ambitions may be undead but webOS certainly is a goner. The question now is, 'which way will HP jump next in terms of an operating system?' Android must be under consideration as well, perhaps, as Windows Phone 8. Elsewhere there could be strategic advantage to be gained by opting for Firefox - but that is an outside bet.

On the hardware front HP could do worse than using Intel's Atom chip. Intel is very, very determined indeed to be a big player in the smartphone market and has very deep pockets some kind of a deal there could be a winner for both parties.

As you would expect, HP is spinning the abrupt U-turn for all it is worth and is claiming that leaving the sector for a few years may actually turn out to be to the company's (and the consumer's) advantage in the long -term.

Thus Su-Yin Yam claimed, "Being late you have to create a different set of propositions. There are still things that can be done. It's not late. When HP has a smartphone, it will give a differentiated experience."

So, now we wait for the arrival of the "Differentiated Experience" phone - and it'lll have to be very differentiated indeed if it is to have any impact at all on Apple or iPhone.

Perhaps we can take a hint from this, the latest pronouncements from HP HQ released in response to media questions about the remarks made by Su-Yin Yam.

“In the short to medium term, we will remain focused on high powered computing devices such as workstations to mobile productivity tools such as tablets. In the long term, we will look at the right approaches to enter the smartphone market as well.”

Not exactly an unequivocal endorsement of a return to the handset fray, is it?

But then the California zephyrs still waft playfully around the ever-rotating weather vane atop Fortress HP. Who knows what direction it will be pointing in six months time? Who would be foolish enough to hazard a guess?

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