Pretty image
John ponders HP’s decision to buy Palm, but reaches few solid conclusions.

There are certain historic decisions that everybody knows were just stupid. In technology, it’s surprising the number of these that involve Apple. Xerox Parc was stupid to let Steve Jobs see its company secrets. Ron Wayne was stupid to sell his founder’s interest in Apple for a pittance. Hewlett-Packard was stupid to turn down the Apple 1 when Steve Wozniak offered it to them.

I guess I’m too stupid to know what everybody knows.

It seems to me that the stupidity at PARC wasn’t that Steve Jobs saw the promise of PARC technology, but that Xerox didn’t. The researchers at PARC had built a lot of cool stuff. Xerox corporate didn’t seem to get how cool it was. The PARC geniuses wanted to be appreciated. Jobs gave them what they wanted. Oh, and the team from Apple weren’t the only the PARCers gave demos to.

Ron Wayne? I have no trouble putting myself in his shoes and coming to the decision he reached. Of course, I just admitted that I might be stupid, so what’s my point? All right, you do the thought experiment: Do you go with the crazy-eyed hippie who says he’s going to build a Fortune 500 company in five years, or do you take the cash? Easy choice, right? I have more trouble putting myself in Steve Jobs’s shoes since, in my mental reconstruction of that conversation, he wasn’t wearing any.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Steve Jobs being Steve Jobs has worked pretty well for Steve Jobs, and it’s done all right for Apple. Apple wouldn’t have happened without him. Which is why making fun of Hewlett-Packard for passing on Woz’s little project doesn’t appeal to me. HP made the right decision. Even if they had turned Woz’s computer into a product and sold the bejeebers out of it, it would have been just another HP product. HP wouldn’t have become Apple. There is no imaginable scenario in which HP becomes Apple.

Today, though, they’d kinda like to try.

Even tech journalists, traditionally the last to notice, are starting to understand that the market has changed. The personal computer era is over. Apple anticipated it and made its moves at the right time and with the right boldness. The end of the personal computer era means that the concept of a computer is fragmenting into multiple categories of smart devices. The desktop is no longer the center of the computing universe. The center is mobile. WIMP and hierarchical directories are no longer acceptable for user interfaces. The new model is built around gestures and touch and conventions foisted on a gullible user base without usability testing or an undo option. The new model involves apps that are cheaper, smaller, and dependent on a fragile connection to the “cloud,” a connection that you’ll pay for by automatic withdrawl—for your convenience.

So in this brave new world, HP bravely gobbles up Palm.

I would so like to ridicule that decision. I just don’t know if I can. Particularly if buying Palm, and with it WebOS, means that HP is truly bailing on Microsoft. But being a big company, they probably won’t. They’ll hedge their bets, on the theory that if you pursue all the options one of them has to pay off and once you know which one it is you just kill off the losers.

You can certainly make a case that HP paid too much for Palm, but you’d have to know what they thought they were buying. The devices and the technology behind them? But HP has been making high-quality handheld devices since before anybody, so do they really need the baggage of Palm’s devices? WebOS? Or maybe the talent? Too bad, then, that some of that talent is bailing. It’s hard to buy people.

It seems like they mostly wanted WebOS, the third or fifth player in this mobile OS market. Third or fifth is still better than Microsoft’s position, though. At least WebOS actually is a player.

So is HP being stupid or making the right move at, for them, the right time?

I don’t know how to assess that, except to ask whether HP has been generally smart or stupid in the big decisions it’s faced over its lifetime. Let’s see.

The HP Way was pretty smart. It got them quality products and happy, respected employees, a great reputation, and profits. It worked for them.

Until it didn’t. Until the company was struggling. Then they brought in a shakeup artist who repealed the HP Way, merged the company with Compaq, and then went on to make videos about alien robot sheep. So there’s that.

Now, though, they want to jump into the iThing end of the pool. HP has always swum in the geeky end of the pool. Can they do consumer? It’ll be fun to watch them try.

The moral of the story? Beats me, but here’s a detail I like: If you walk out of the West door of the San Jose Convention Center, cut across the parking lot and across the little Guadalupe River, you’ll soon find yourself in front of the Children’s Discovery Museum. From the parking lot to the Museum, you’ll have been walking along a street named Woz Way for Steve Wozniak. HP rejected Woz, HP lost its Way, Woz found his. It must mean something.

John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland on a cloudy day in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. He’d like to take a brighter view of things, but it’s just not his Way.

Send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.