HP's bad quarter could prove bad for America

China on verge of being world's top PC maker, and the PC business of HP or Dell could be headed there too

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HP said another reason it kept the PC business is to help it extend sales of servers and services to businesses. Few companies in the world come close to offering HP's range of equipment and integration capabilities.

Whitman's position on the PC division notwithstanding, the idea of a spin off won't go away unless HP can turn it around -- and find a way to offer tablets and other mobile technologies used by enterprises.

Potential buyers

Lenovo bought IBM's PC division in 2005 and instantly became the world's third largest PC vendor. It would be a likely candidate to buy spun off HP or Dell PC divisions as.

Lenovo is completely focused on the mobile and PC markets. It has clear advantage in the massive Chinese market while proving itself in other markets as well. It uses the word "Attack," to describe its execution strategy to investors.

If Lenovo didn't buy the HP and/or Dell U.S. PC divisions, then some other overseas company may.

A U.S. buyer of the units seems unlikely.

Oracle is a doubtful candidate -- it's still working to consume Sun Microsystems. Microsoft wouldn't deter threats to its operating system by making PCs. Cisco has no talent for the consumer market, something it proved with the Flip camcorders.

If Lenovo or another China-based firm buys thither or both of the U.S. PC operations, it could pose challenges to U.S. technology leadership, some experts say.

"The problem is that if a Chinese company bought them, the odds are quite high that they would be backed either directly or indirectly by the [Chinese] government," said Robert Atkinson, who heads the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington.

Atkinson, who has testified before Congress on global competition issues, will release in two weeks Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage (Yale University Press), a book written with Stephen Ezell, .

Atkinson contends "that the future Chinese strategy will rely on an aggressive foreign acquisition strategy, backed by the deep pockets of the Chinese government designed to gain advantage in key technology areas."

A spin-off of the HP or Dell PC units could make short-term sense from a Wall Street perspective, "but would have long term negative implications for the US," Atkinson said.

"At some point you draw a line in the sand and say no more retreat, we stand and fight here. If PCs go, what's next? Semiconductors? Other components? At some point the United States has to say what are we not willing to lose in foreign competition," he said.

For the record, Lenovo says it has a dual headquarters in Beijing and Morrisville, North Carolina, but it is ostensibly a China-based firm.

For now, Dell and HP seem committed to keeping their PC divisions.

The current troubles are still being blamed on strong "headwinds" ranging from continuing trouble in the global economy to the Apple's ongoing tablet dominance.

But we'll see what the next quarter brings and what Wall Street has to say about it.

And if HP loses its top position, an even larger conversation may begin in America.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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