Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Changing Battlefield ... err ... Marketplace

Madison Avenue has done a good job with me; I’m very brand conscious. (Is “Madison Avenue” still the “brand” for the advertising juggernaut of the past?) There are many brands that I’ve loved and respected for a long time. I have been recently considering the brands that I’ve championed for many, many years. When I first started in the technical business, I worked as a calibration technician. My job was to calibrate electronic test equipment. To perform that job I used a lot of electronic test equipment.

I soon started to appreciate certain brands of equipment for their quality and performance. Most of the high end equipment I used was Hewlett-Packard from their signal generators to vacuum tube voltmeters. When it came to oscilloscopes, then the brand you wanted was Tektronix, and the best microwave gear came from people like Pollard or Keithly (and, of course, HP). The best computers were IBM (and I thought the best cars were Chevrolet, at least my ’55 and ’59 were).

Things have changed over the years with the appearance of companies that didn’t even exist when I started working in the 60s: names like Microsoft, Apple, or RIM. My history with brand loyalty has added new brands such as Toyota and Sony, and also dropped brands such as Chevrolet and Sony (at least I’m very disappointed with the quality of Sony computers). Since much of a consumer’s decision is based on individual brand preferences and the respect and expectations a brand name carries, it is an interesting lens to view the current struggles through.

We saw the personal computer revolution started by brands such as Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack. Back then both HP and IBM had what might be called personal computers, but they weren’t sold in the home market. In 1981 IBM introduced the 5150 Personal Computer, introducing both Microsoft and Intel to the general public, and – as they say – the rest is history.

As the PC has evolved over the last 30 years we are now in the age of “mobiles” like smartphones and tablet computers. Along the way to these highly portable devices we saw breakthrough products by Apple (Newton) and Go, the more recent PDA products led by Palm, and the basic cell phone with brands such as Motorola and Nokia taking the front.

Now the brand leadership seems to be in the hands of Apple and another new company named after the mathematical and playful term for ten raised to the one hundredth power: Google. As the existing companies (at least some of them – IBM has abandoned the home market and sold its PC business to the Chinese company Lenovo) scrambling to match the success of the iPhone and the iPad.

Before I purchased my iPhone I was focused on a new smartphone and mobile operating system from Palm called WebOS. They released a very interesting Pre smart phone nearly two years ago and it looked quite good for a first release. Unfortunately, there was little interest in developing apps for the WebOS and we all know that Apps are everything. Eventually HP bought Palm ending their many years of success.

So where is HP during all this history? They quietly overtook IBM and Dell as the leading providers of Windows based personal computers, sold off their test equipment division under the name Agilent Technologies, and are quite a powerhouse in the large UNIX server class of machines challenging Sun (recently bought by a software company, Oracle) and IBM. They are now the world’s largest PC company and top buyer of semiconductors, but have yet to establish themselves as a player in the new mobile markets beyond notebooks.

In this race in new direction, HP starts off way behind. Apple defined the tablet market almost a year ago with the iPad and is about to release its next-generation model.  Samsung has already taken the fast follower slot with its Android-based Galaxy Tab. Motorola has grabbed early kudos for challenging Samsung's number two status with its soon-to-be-released Xoom tablet based on Android 3.0. (That release is scheduled to occur tomorrow! On that same day, Apple is rumored to release a new set of MacBook computers … technology marches on!!)

HP can't even hope to jump to the number four spot right away. A slew of companies including Acer, Dell, LG, Lenovo and many others are already tussling for that position with devices shown at the recent Consumer Electronics Show,  generally using Microsoft's Windows 7 or Google's  Android.

(Microsoft is also scampering to get traction in this new marketplace and has released its latest smartphone OS called confusingly Windows 7, a name likely based on the six previous failed attempts by MS to produce a smartphone OS…at least that’s my interpretation. Nokia, another former champion falling way behind has announced a partnership with MS and Windows 7 phones have entered the crowded field)

The bar for success is high for HP. It must not only show a compelling product in an area where it is the umpteenth player, it has to establish a new platform.

Apple's iOS and Google's Android are well down the road with thousands of apps on their mobile OSs. Research in Motion has a solid following for its Blackberry platform that it is already converting to its new QNX-based environment for the Playbook tablet going into beta trials. 

Nokia will no doubt push one of its smartphone platforms as a tablet OS, too. We just don't know yet whether the company's new CEO will opt for Symbian, MeeGo, Windows 7 or Android, and quite likely choosing multiple platforms.

So here too, HP will have to fight its way forward even into fourth place with its WebOS acquired with Palm. We pity the software developers who have to figure out which of these platforms to back. Clearly the Palm team HP acquired in April 2010  is talented and includes several former Apple executives and engineers. Their Pre smartphone and its follow-ons were world class. But the world turns quickly and waits for no corporate mergers.

HP's size is no guarantee of its success. It was a timely player in the PDA era with its iPaq handheld from Compaq, but the winds of the smartphone world blew out that flame. Creating a new class of smartphones and tablets under a new corporate structure with a new software platform is no small feat. Hard as success in that job is, it is just table stakes to get back into a mobile competition that is one of the fiercest battlegrounds in modern electronics.

There will be plenty of battles ahead before the new mobile world matures and its winners emerge. Welcome to the battle, HP. You’re a brand I greatly respect.

Originally written on Feb. 23, 2011.

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