John Gallant: Apotheker lays out new vision for HP -- details to come?

It's not clear from HP's strategy outline Monday how it will differentiate services from the other major tech players

SAN FRANCISCO -- In 1993, after his first 100 days as CEO at ailing IBM, Louis Gerstner was being pressed to reveal his "vision" of the new IBM to come under his leadership. He famously responded: "The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision."

Instead, he said, what the company needed was "a series of very tough-minded, market-driven, highly effective strategies for each of its businesses -- strategies that deliver performance in the marketplace and shareholder value."

Even as he was implementing those specific, tough changes, critics harped on the "vision" thing and wondered whether Gerstner really had a blueprint for rebuilding the humbled computing giant. We know how that story ended.

In contrast, after four and a half months as CEO of HP, Leo Apotheker stood before scores of journalists and analysts here on Monday to reveal his vision for the new HP -- a vision that encapsulates a lot of today's hot buzzwords but was surprisingly thin on dates or details.

Apotheker, who took over in the wake of former CEO Mark Hurd's sudden departure, said HP will "provide seamless, secure, context-aware experiences for the connected world."

What does that mean? And, more important, how does that differentiate HP from the other major players in the tech business?

As expected, Apotheker made clear that cloud will be a key focus for HP, and he tantalized the audience by discussing plans for offering infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, and an application store for both consumers and the enterprise.

But he said very little about how those services will be built or when they will be offered, beyond revealing that the infrastructure service is being rolled out "as we speak" and that HP will take advantage of investments it has already made in big data centers to support it.

The platform-as-a-service offering and the app store? Coming sometime in "2011 to 2012." The platform will support multiple development languages, but Apotheker didn't say whether it will be based on Microsoft's Azure technology or something else. (Microsoft and HP have jointly developed an Azure appliance for the enterprise.)

Apotheker also said that HP will use its considerable product portfolio, and its services unit, to help customers attain hybrid private-public clouds, but he didn't say a great deal about how exactly it will help them do that.

He sounded out a theme that he has voiced in a number of recent interviews: that HP needs to expand its software portfolio. He said that the focus will be on widening HP's management and security offerings, as well as its analytics capabilities.

Regarding management and security offerings, Apotheker again was light on details, beyond saying that HP will develop new software internally and expand through acquisitions.

What kind of acquisitions? Well, software that advances cloud and connectivity, not "the old software stack" -- a seemingly pointed reference to traditional software products offered by rivals like IBM.

Apotheker said that HP's focus in analytics will be centered on helping customers with "big data" applications that involve huge data sets. HP recently announced plans to acquire analytics software company Vertica Systems, and HP demonstrated a powerful new appliance incorporating the Vertica software that the company says will be available in multiple configurations soon after the acquisition is complete.

Apotheker described the analytics market as one that is poorly served by vendors today.

On the connectivity front, the new CEO reiterated his plans to ship PCs, printers, smartphones and tablets with the webOS operating system -- though not to the exclusion of Microsoft Windows.

Apotheker claimed that HP could achieve the scale of shipping 100 million webOS-equipped devices annually, which in his view would make that an enormously attractive development platform for application providers.

Will all or any of this require leadership changes within HP, as has been rumored? Apotheker declined to answer that question, saying the day was about "strategy," not tactics.

At the end, Apotheker's long-awaited coming-out party was long on vision and short on milestones on a road map that by itself doesn't go very far in differentiating HP in a very competitive market.

Now it's up to the former SAP leader to exercise HP's vaunted operational excellence to deliver something all the other players focused on cloud, connectivity and the consumerization of IT aren't already talking about or providing.

(Note to readers: I'll be interviewing Leo Apotheker on Tuesday, and we'll provide a full transcript of that and a summary shortly after the discussion wraps up. -- JG)

John Gallant is chief content officer at IDG Enterprise, which publishes Computerworld.

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