What to do with webOS?

Contact: Brenon Daly, Chris Hazelton

Investors can only hope that Hewlett-Packard doesn’t announce any ‘bold, transformative steps’ this afternoon like it did the last time it discussed its quarterly financial results. Recall that it was just mid-August when the tech giant unveiled a dramatic overhaul of its business: looking to jettison its $40bn PC division while simultaneously closing the largest acquisition in the software industry in seven years. And, to make matters worse, HP announced those moves in the same breath as it said it would fall short of its earnings projections for the third straight quarter.

Given that the makeover had the dubious distinction of being both overdue and ill-conceived, it’s probably not surprising that it was doomed. (As, it turned out, was the chief architect of those plans, Leo Apotheker.) The company had shed as much as $20bn in market value at one point because of the strategic stumbles, although it is ‘only’ down about half that amount now.

Part of the recent recovery has come from the fact that HP has stabilized, at least in some regards. There was no lingering, interminable Yahoo-style search for a replacement when Apotheker got dumped; instead, the company moved Meg Whitman into the corner office in quick order. Also, rather than see through the sale of its PC business – a divestiture that would have only brought pennies on the dollar, if it could have been done at all – HP reversed course and said it plans to remain in the PC business.

Of course, there’s still uncertainty hanging over one key aspect of its Personal Systems Group: webOS. As we see it, HP has four basic options for the business, which supplies operating systems to tablets and smartphones. It could keep webOS and put real investments behind it, even though, in the short term, those efforts might not produce much return. HP could shop webOS to a device maker, which might benefit from an integrated hardware and software product or, at the least, cut the manufacturer’s reliance on Google’s Android. Alternatively, rather than try to sell webOS as an ongoing entity, HP could slim it down to simply a portfolio of patents and put that on the block. And finally, if it can’t sell webOS in any fashion, it could just follow in the footsteps of Nokia and its Symbian OS, and punt the software into the open source community in hopes of gaining developer support with a wider range of webOS devices.

A longshot for Leo?

Contact: Brenon Daly

Hewlett-Packard is now, officially, Leo Apotheker’s company. Since his somewhat surprising appointment as HP’s chief executive last fall, Apotheker has been taking small steps while also dropping big hints that he would be recasting the tech giant. But few observers could have imagined the almost unprecedented scope of the transition that Apotheker laid out late Thursday: HP will be integrating the largest acquisition in the software industry in seven years while simultaneously looking into selling off its hardware business.

Wall Street appears to be skeptical that HP can pull that off, as shares in the company on Friday sank to their lowest level since mid-2006. (Incidentally, that’s just before Apotheker’s predecessor, Mark Hurd, took over the company.) On their own, either one of HP’s dramatic moves (working through the top-dollar acquisition of Autonomy Corp and possibly selling the world’s largest PC maker) would be enough to keep any company busy. Taken together, the combination appears doubly difficult. And that’s even more the case for HP, which, to be candid, has a spotty record on M&A.

Consider this: Autonomy will be slotted into HP’s software unit, which has been built primarily via M&A. But that division runs at a paltry 19% operating margin, less than half the rate of many large software companies, including Autonomy itself. And then there’s the $13.9bn HP spent in mid-2008 for EDS in an effort to become a services giant. So far this year, however, that business hasn’t put up any growth. And perhaps most damning is the fact that HP now doesn’t really know what it will do with its hardware business – a unit that largely comes from the multibillion-dollar purchases of Compaq Computer and Palm Inc.

What would Palm be worth today?

by Brenon Daly

We have to hand it to Palm Inc – the smartphone maker got out while the getting was (relatively) good. At least that’s one way to think about Palm’s decision to sell to Hewlett-Packard in April 2010 for $1.2bn. Hitting that bid looks even smarter in light of the beating that Research In Motion has taken since then, including Friday’s capitulation by many longtime shareholders. Consider this: since Palm became an HP business, RIM on its own has lost 80% of its market value. (Meanwhile, the Nasdaq is up slightly during that period.)

While some of RIM’s staggering decline can be traced back to the company’s own missteps around product delays, its fortunes also stand as a sort of proxy for the ‘non-hot’ (i.e., not Apple iOS- or Google Android-based) mobile market. And in that way, we shudder to think how Palm would have fared there if it remained a stand-alone smartphone vendor.

After all, Palm was barely holding on with a single-digit market share, not to mention the fact that it was teetering financially at the time of its sale. The unprofitable company was burning cash and, in the quarter the deal was going through, had just forecast that sales would fall off a cliff. In contrast, RIM is still profitable and growing. But you wouldn’t know that from the relative valuations of the firms. In its sale, Palm was able to fetch a not insignificantly higher valuation than RIM currently garners on the market.