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HP tries to get 'radically simple'

Hewlett-Packard has a new design plan: Make products easier to use than rival offerings and so effective when used together that customers stay with HP when buying different devices.

    Hewlett-Packard is adopting a new design philosophy, aiming to make its products easier to operate than rival offerings and so effective when used together that customers stay with the HP family when buying various devices.

    The "Radically Simple, Better Together" effort is companywide, although work is centered in HP's PC unit and its imaging and printing division, which makes scanners, printers and digital cameras. The first fruits of the initiative should appear later this year, according to several HP executives.

    HP has not yet articulated the strategy publicly, although both the "radically simple" and "better together" notions have crept into various marketing presentations in recent months. Executives familiar with the project stressed that it is a serious development effort, not just marketing speak or a project destined to stay in the company's research labs.

    "It's clearly one of our main strategies," said Jim McDonnell, vice president of marketing for HP's PC unit. "It's real, and it's a big deal."

    Chris Morgan, vice president of marketing and sales for HP's imaging and printing unit, agreed. "It's not some skunk works thing," he said. "It's so embedded in what we are doing."

    Although HP is not talking publicly about what forms products developed under the new initiative will take, hints of the idea are visible in the company's line of all-in-one printers, which also act as scanners and copiers.

    In addition to performing the three functions separately, HP's all-in-one printers are designed to integrate the features of the different devices. For example, all-in-ones that are capable of reading flash media-storage cards can print a proof sheet of all the digital pictures stored on a card. Users can then bubble in which prints they want and place the sheet in the device, which than "reads" the bubbled-in proof sheet and prints out individual copies of the selected images.

    "Conceptually, a lot of the things we've done well in (the all-in-one) space apply in other areas," Morgan said.

    Of course, HP printers will still work with all brands of PCs, just as HP computers will work with any make of camera or printer. But the idea is that the features might be better integrated if you have more than one HP widget.

    "If you buy an HP PC product and an HP printer, you are going to have much better experience," McDonnell said.

    HP is not the only company trying to take advantage of its breadth of products. Sony, for example, has pushed its Memory Stick flash memory cards as a way of easily sharing information among a variety of Sony devices. Sony has also developed a great deal of software that lets its PCs take better advantage of their new features. One such program lets Sony devices with a DVD-burner record television shows and then burn them onto a DVD.

    Meanwhile, IBM has an initiative on the business side to make its PCs cheaper to operate by making them easier for information technology departments to manage and maintain. This sort of manageability is likely to be at the heart of the business side of HP's Radically Simple effort, possibly as part of HP's OpenView software, designed to help IT managers oversee collections of PCs, servers and other tech gear.

    One danger in HP's new strategy is that the effort to make products interact better could increase the cost of manufacturing the devices. The issue is particularly significant in HP's PC business, where the company has worked aggressively to cut costs, eking out a small profit during the last quarter.

    But Morgan stressed that consumers have shown a willingness to pay for features when they make a significant difference. As an example, he cited the addition of LCD screens to some photo printers, a feature that makes it easier to print photos without using a PC.

    "The question is 'Is there enough value added above and beyond that cost,'" Morgan said. "If you actually look at what's selling in the consumer (market), it has not been the lowest priced" products."

    Digital photography is one area in particular where Morgan believes HP's approach will pay off.

    "Clearly the shift to digital cameras is happening quickly, but there is still a fear factor," Morgan said. "There is an opportunity to really help consumers get to their end results more easily if we can do a better job of integrating the technology," he said.