HP has suffered from Apple envy

With Hewlett-Packard today announcing that it plans to spin off its PC business and discontinue its WebOS operations, can Apple be blamed?

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
4 min read

Commentary Maybe you can blame Apple for the mess at Hewlett-Packard.

HP, like so many other tech companies, has had Apple envy for the last few years. But also like so many others, it's proved no match for Apple's design and marketing machine. And today, HP paid the price for that inability. It gave up on WebOS, the mobile operating system it acquired to compete directly with Apple's iOS. And it announced plans to rid itself of its PC business.

HP's TouchPad tablet.
HP's TouchPad tablet. HP

After HP dominated the PC market, Apple began nipping at it and other PC makers heels. This, combined with margins in the PC business going from bad to worse, put HP on the defensive. What resulted was a series of reactionary products and business moves.

You can almost pinpoint the start of the me-too downfall to the launch of HP's Envy 13, a luxury laptop HP introduced a little more than a year and a half after Apple's first MacBook Air. It too was thinner and lighter than most notebooks at the time, and a departure from HP's consumer efforts, though it came at a hefty price premium.

Instead of whittling away the size and price, as Apple's done with the Air, HP eventually killed off the 13-inch model of the Envy to focus instead on larger and heavier versions that were more budget-friendly. By comparison, Apple's cut away at the price of the Air, while slowly adding features. That culminated with the company recently deciding to make the 11.6-inch Air its entry-level portable computer, dropping the plastic MacBook, a machine that was once its best-seller.

Then there are phones and tablets. With Apple and Google ramping up their mobile platforms, and whittling away at the market share of Research In Motion, Nokia, and Microsoft, HP was forced to make a decision: stay tied to Microsoft's Windows Mobile (a platform that Microsoft eventually killed in favor of Windows Phone 7), scrap its phone hardware business, or be like Apple and do it all in-house.

The solution was to spend $1.2 billion on Palm and its WebOS platform. With that buy, HP suddenly made both its own smartphones and smartphone software, all in the same ecosystem. Better yet, it wasn't beholden to other companies in order to spur its own innovations. With the Palm buy, HP was also buying a piece of Apple: Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein, a longtime Apple employee who was one of the creators of the iPod, was put in charge of HP's mobile device efforts.

WebOS was scheduled to bridge the divide to HP's computers, effectively replacing Microsoft's Windows operating system with one HP would be making in house. While not exclusively an Apple strategy, that too is one that became especially enviable for HP, given the chance to increase its margins by cutting Microsoft out of the picture. In fact, that's one of the places where HP promised to out-Apple Apple itself, providing a single platform for developers to make apps on for both desktop and mobile users.

The problem is, HP isn't Apple. It's a giant, diverse company that makes everything from corporate software to phones. That's a lot under one roof, more than even at IBM, not to mention HP is on its third CEO in the past decade. None of those changes can be good for the culture. Now let's compare that to Apple.

Apple started off small, making computers, later expanding into additional product categories. Though for the past decade it's been all about the consumer, with those consumer products then bleeding into the enterprise. That whole time though, Apple's been careful to keep its product line tidy, making incremental improvements almost on a cycle, while at the same time creating a cult-like fascination out of it. That kind of mojo is impossible to replicate, though rivals including Google have gotten better at it.

The products themselves are entirely Apple, soup to nuts across the board. Apple controls the design, the hardware, the software, where you buy it (including how you see it--even when it's not in an Apple store), and staffing the people that can fix your hardware or software problem if and when it comes along. The hope is that your next phone or computer will be from Apple, and if Apple decides to venture into another territory, those same customers might come back. That's something that's hard for anyone, let alone HP to match.

Can another big tech company compete with Apple? Sure, the likely culprits are Google and its partners, or Microsoft and its partners. It's hard to say. One of Apple's biggest threats at the moment is itself, particularly in regards to how much longer it can continue to ride its success. One thing we do know: that big challenger won't be HP.