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HP fiddles while Apple innovates

Hewlett-Packard is a company with deep roots in Silicon Valley. But you would never know it. Most of the device innovation comes from its Valley neighbor, Apple.

commentary The paradox of Hewlett-Packard only gets more pronounced with each high-profile product announcement: its TouchPad tablet is the latest head-scratcher. Meanwhile, Apple continues to spit out one stunning product after another.

In practice, HP has kept the garage door locked all of these years.
In practice, HP has kept the garage door locked all of these years. Hewlett-Packard

HP's paradox is that it sits in the cradle of innovation--Silicon Valley--but fails to innovate. Nothing has emerged from HP like an iPod, iPad, or MacBook Air. And HP is the original Valley start-up, founded in a garage more than 70 years ago, long before Apple's legendary start.

Fast forward to the reign of former CEO Carly Fiorina. She talked a lot about going back to the garage but never actually went back. And nothing in device-design innovation changed with her successor, Mark Hurd.

I'm hoping, as always, for change with the current CEO Leo Apotheker. But his focus is still the on the enterprise--which demands design stability--the antithesis of innovation. A profitable segment, yes, but not one that can create an iPod or even a MacBook Air.

And a recent statement by Apotheker doesn't offer much hope. "If you use a state-of-the-art laptop it is as sleek, as slim as [an iPad]," he said at the D9 conference last month. Really? I have yet to see an HP laptop that comes near the iPad in thinness (0.34 inch) and portability (1.33 pounds). In fact, the only thing that gets close is another Apple product: the 11.6-inch MacBook Air.

He then added as a parenthetical: "There's a whole new product refresh coming out." Yeah, I've heard that one before. He's either so disconnected from product design that he believes HP actually has a laptop that rivals the iPad, or he knows about some truly groundbreaking newfangled product in the pipeline. Should we give him the benefit of the doubt?

That brings us to the TouchPad. Probably the first high-profile product to emerge with his imprimatur. In a word, disappointment. I listened to HP's Jon Rubinstein talk for most of an hour about the virtues of the TouchPad (before it was announced as a shipping product) at a Qualcomm conference in San Diego last month. And I stood with an HP product manager later in the day as he demonstrated the TouchPad (and got some hands-on time, albeit brief, with it, too).

The HP TouchPad is a disappointment, considering that it's coming from a Silicon Valley company with tremendous R&D resources.
The HP TouchPad is a disappointment, considering that it's coming from a Silicon Valley company with tremendous R&D resources. CNET

In the end it was a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing about innovation. The TouchPad is a thick, relatively heavy black slab of plastic, just like a dozen other no-name tablets on the market. And let me quote from a CNET review of the TouchPad: "The bottom line: The TouchPad would have made a great competitor for the original iPad, but its design, features, and speed put it behind today's crop of tablet heavyweights."

That's putting it rather diplomatically. I don't even think as an organic product--the marrying of hardware and software--it competes with the original iPad.

And what about laptops? You would think that with all of the Silicon Valley-based R&D HP does and with all of the business and consumer laptops that it makes--and has made over the years--that it could come up with one MacBook Air. Or, better yet, surpass it. Apparently not. HP was headed in that direction with Envy 13. But of course it killed that product after killing the truly innovative Voodoo Envy 133--a design conceived not by HP but VoodooPC, which HP acquired.

The huge design void left by HP in Windows laptops is now being filled by companies like Asus, Samsung, and Sony. And if HP isn't careful that could ultimately translate into market share loss as the world turns increasingly to products like the Asus UX21 and Sony Vaio Z instead of a less-inspired business laptops like the HP EliteBook 2560p (which, as an innovative design is OK, in my opinion, but could be a lot better).

Let me close by saying that I've owned a lot of HP products over the years: a few laptops and docking stations, half a dozen printers, and a few flat-screen displays. The last product I owned was the 2510p, an ultraportable design carried over from the Compaq (which HP acquired) Armada M300. Compaq had, in turn, gotten design elements of the M300 from the Digital Equipment (which Compaq acquired) HiNote Ultra (PDF) laptop design team.

Unfortunately, by the time HP's design committees had gotten through with the 2510p, it was a far cry from the MacBook Air-like Armada M300 and far removed from the inspired HiNote Ultra. In short, the 2510p was a quintessential HP laptop: practical but with most design innovation stripped out (and afflicted with sudden shutdown syndrome because of overheating--but I won't delve into that here).

My obvious advice: HP should become less like HP and more like Apple. Or at least more like Samsung. Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a gorgeously-thin tablet that screams "buy me!" And Samsung's Series 9 laptops are also serious head-turners, like the MacBook Air.

But then, maybe Apotheker has something up his sleeve. I would like to think so.