Is HP changing its Voodoo tune?

One executive says the integration of the high-end PC maker with the giant company has gone differently than expected. Officially, HP says there's no reason for concern.

HP Voodoo Envy
The HP and Voodoo co-branded Envy notebook in 2008. Hewlett-Packard

Hewlett-Packard is sending mixed signals on what exactly it plans to do with the Voodoo PC brand it acquired three years ago.

After purchasing the gaming and PC enthusiast brand in 2006, HP in 2008 began using the Voodoo name beyond powerful gaming PCs. It painted the name Voodoo and VoodooDNA on high-end HP notebooks and desktops, and talked up their premium engineering and design. They used the analogy that if the HP brand were a Smart Car and Compaq were a Chrysler, Voodoo would be their Maybach.

But a year later, HP's consumer PC lineup contains little trace of the Voodoo branding. HP had introduced the HP Blackbird with VoodooDNA and more recently HP Firebird with Voodoo DNA . Both are nowhere to be found on HP.com. In a more recent example, a new notebook, called the HP Envy was released last week. A year ago it was called the HP Voodoo Envy 133 . Though the updated model takes some Voodoo ideas like the thin profile, quick booting, the power adapter, and packaging, you'd have to be a Voodoo fanboy to know Voodoo had any sort of influence at all on it.

So what gives? It seems the Voodoo team didn't have much to do with the Envy, despite its sharing the same name with older products.

"The reason there's no 'Voodoo DNA' on the (most recent) product has to do with the overall design language, the target market, and the fact that we weren't directly involved in the design," Rahul Sood, the founder of VoodooPC and the chief technology officer of gaming PCs for HP, wrote on his personal blog.

In the same post, Sood that Voodoo is "transitioning from 'desktop and notebook' manufacturing to something beyond." While it's unclear what "something beyond" means, he hints that besides HP taking some design and engineering cues from Voodoo that the company he founded didn't quite fit into HP the way Sood had initially expected.

"Voodoo, as you all know, was to be integrated into the larger business units so we could take some of our ideas and products to a much larger audience," Sood wrote. Overall, he said it "wasn't as easy as I had hoped" to integrate the Voodoo operation into HP's monstrous engineering and manufacturing machine. "It's very difficult to explain the magnitude of difference," he added.

HP Envy notebook
The new HP Envy, sans Voodoo branding. Hewlett-Packard

HP representatives, when asked for clarification, said there's no reason for concern: their Voodoo plans haven't changed, even though a few Voodoo computers seem to have disappeared from their product line. HP says they were limited edition designs.

"To be named Voodoo, products require extreme engineering, extreme design and a premium customer experience," said an HP spokesperson. "Once the extreme engineering is scalable for high volume, then we consider moving it to the HP brand as we did with the new Envy notebooks."

Essentially the high-end products that the Voodoo name gets attached to are harder to scale at the manufacturing capacity that is normal for HP products. But when pressed on the lack of any recent Voodoo and HP co-branding, HP said we can "expect to see the Voodoo and VoodooDNA products come out at about the same pace as they have since the acquisition." If the three-year history of the deal is a guide, it looks like that means once every year or two.

That may be disappointing to some. But it was clear from the beginning that the acquisition of Voodoo by HP was for high-end cachet, not big gobs of customers. Voodoo was a Calgary, Canada boutique PC maker turning out custom gaming machines. Each computer was built by hand for enthusiasts willing to pay for machines that sometimes started at $5,000 each.

So it made sense when HP opted to use the brand first on the Blackbird gaming PC marketed as a powerful HP desktop for gamers with "Voodoo DNA." That meant that it was an HP-branded product but was built in conjunction with the Voodoo team. Then HP rolled out the Voodoo Envy notebook and Voodoo Omen desktop last year. They were a complete design departure for HP: sleek with interesting materials like carbon fiber, and in the case of the Envy, a $2,000 price tag to match, yet aimed at the same type of audience that might want a MacBook Pro or a Dell Adamo.

Though the limited-edition Voodoo Omen was discontinued after a year, the well-received Envy notebook was refreshed earlier this month. The new HP Envy sports some very Apple-esque design features, and the same high-end specs and price tag as the original Envy, but--as Sood noted in his blog--there's no Voodoo name to be found.

Voodoo versus Alienware

From the beginning, HP's approach to Voodoo was more modest than Dell's approach to Alienware, the boutique PC maker it acquired in March 2006. Dell brought Alienware as a brand into its consumer division, but uses it only on a gaming desktop, a gaming notebook and gaming mice and keyboards. The biggest change seems to be the brand's scale: Before the acquisition, Alienware was available in six countries; it's now for sale in 37.

HP seemed more ambitious at first about bringing Voodoo into the mainstream and not keeping it a strictly gaming brand. Sood writes that though he wanted to make the Voodoo Envy available in Dubai, London, and India, that hasn't happened yet.

"It was frustrating for me because I've always wanted to get the brand out there, but changing the way the machine works so that we could take it globally isn't that simple," he wrote. Sood went on to say that Voodoo is not going away, but Voodoo machines will look different than we're used to seeing. Unfortunately, for Voodoo's old fandom, they could be a bit harder to find than some anticipated in the early days of the deal.

"Does this mean you'll never see a Voodoo or VoodooNDA desktop or notebook again? Hardly, I'm sure you will...but while we hash this out you will continue to see products with our fingerprints released from various areas of HP."

So HP's acquisition has been reduced to mere fingerprints? Not exactly, but it's increasingly clear there will be no Voodoo-ization of the broader HP product line. And when the economy picks up, demand could return for high-end machines and perhaps more Voodoo.

"Given the economic times it probably makes a little sense not to come with a really high end system, when (average selling prices) are dropping so quickly these days," IDC analyst Richard Shim said. But "If they were to get rid of it, it would be a mistake. It takes a lot of credibility and investment to build up a premium brand."

About the author

Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.

 

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