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Who does Carly think she is?

Sure, she's taking a gamble, but it's a smart one, writes CNET News.com's Charles Cooper. He says HP's CEO should get the benefit of the doubt from trust-fund critics sour on Compaq.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read
Walter Hewlett, born with a silver--no, make that platinum--spoon in his mouth, had the foresight to be born to a fabulously brilliant, entrepreneurial dad. But the family resemblance ends right there, because this apple fell very far from the paternal tree.

Junior--subsequently joined by David W. Packard--has now gone public, registering sharp disapproval of Carly Fiorina's plans to reshape Hewlett-Packard. The news was subsequently seized upon by opponents of the proposed HP-Compaq merger as yet more evidence that this is a match made in hell. Sotto voce, rumblings from the critics' corner suggest that it's high time to ride Fiorina out of town before she wrecks everything.

I can understand why Messrs. Hewlett and Packard--and the rest of la famiglia, for that matter--are anxious. There's a vast family fortune to consider, and a lot of stock wealth would dissipate if HP embarks upon a poorly constructed strategy to reshape itself, simply because the new CEO wants to shake things up.

But is Fiorina's vision for the future of the company really so ill-conceived? Well, to quote a former United States president, let me say this about that.

To be sure, the months since the merger announcement have been marked by a dialogue of the deaf where there's a huge disconnect between what HP says about the deal and how that message is being received by investors. From the get-go, Fiorina and her team have concentrated on the benefits of bringing under one roof all the high-end stuff, like services, storage and servers. (In a certain sense, HP is essentially buying Digital Equipment and Tandem, two companies, which had been earlier absorbed by Compaq.)

But the critics are having none of that, reducing the entire deal to a PC thing. And since PCs are a no-profit, flagging business--or so goes what passes for the conventional wisdom these days--that naturally suggests Carly's morning coffee is being laced with LSD.

Beats me, but the more I hear and the more I read about the folly of this merger, the more I'm convinced the resident geniuses in the Wall Street community are wrong.

HP-Compaq may never challenge IBM for the No. 1 position in services, but so what?
HP-Compaq may never challenge IBM for the No. 1 position in services, but so what? The merger would still create the world's third-largest computing services company behind Big Blue and EDS. Support services is a growth business, especially important during this otherwise nasty point in economic history. What's more, it helps get the provider into more accounts because customers are especially keen on saving money with IT, and that means more than simply buying more personal computers. This is not about sexy; it's about return on investment and getting companies back to business.

Kulturkampf at HP
And so back to the trust-fund kids and their sudden discomfort at the prospect of an HP-Compaq merger.

"This transaction would be bad for HP," Hewlett said earlier in the week. "It would put a lot of things at great risk."

Like the HP Way, perhaps? You betcha.

Or more precisely, the old way of doing things at HP. Clearly, lots of holdovers detest Fiorina because, well, she's got no patience for a substitute to performance-based merit, and that poses a threat to the worst of an inbred corporate culture where results can take a backseat to a propensity for spinning your wheels: "Can't we first figure out a process to define the process in which to think about a way to understand a process?...etc."

Like IBM's Lou Gerstner, Carly Fiorina is bent on jamming through changes at HP, whether folks there like it or not.
The Compaq acquisition means a lot of current staffers are going to be out of a job at HP. That's never a thrilling prospect, especially at this approaching winter of discontent.

But the grousing is part of the natural reaction whenever an outsider attempts to muck with the way things have traditionally been done.

Lou Gerstner met the same reaction when he reshaped IBM. That was no picnic, but nowadays he's hailed as Big Blue's savior. And like Gerstner, Fiorina is bent on jamming through changes at HP, whether folks there like it or not.

What if?
Both HP and Compaq have their weaknesses, but combined, the strength of a unified company plugs the holes. That's on paper, of course, and a successful integration is going to take sweat, tears and lots of blood--not to mention luck.

What if the deal goes sour? The HP and Compaq boards are still in favor of pushing the agreement, and at this writing, I think they can still get their way. But this remains a fluid situation, and there's a full month before the big vote.

I'm willing to make one big bet: If Hewlett and Packard successfully scupper the deal, they're going to set in motion a new constellation of forces.

Compaq is clearly the more vulnerable partner and, in the words of one insider, should the merger fall through, "it's going to be a fire sale over here." HP has somewhat more room to maneuver, but it, too, would find itself under intense pressure. Squeezed by IBM and Sun Microsystems on the high end and Dell Computer on the low end, the company would lose credibility with customers it has lobbied so hard to convince of the wisdom behind the merger.

Ultimately, the two companies would be forced to pair off with new partners. Only this time, it wouldn't be a consummation of their choosing.