Stepping out from Hurd’s shadow, HP looks to the cloud

Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) CEO Leo Apotheker took a step out of Mark Hurd’s shadow Monday, unveiling a new cloud computing platform that puts the company in competition with Amazon and Google.

In addition to an infrastructure-as-a-service offering, HP will also deliver a marketplace for consumer, small and medium business, and enterprise applications, Apotheker said.

There will be something for every HP customer in the marketplace, he said. “We’ll provide a single open market that integrates consumer, enterprise and developer services,” he said, speaking at an event held for press and analysts in San Francisco Monday. The cloud marketplace will include an application store, as well as developer tools and enterprise services and support, he said.

HP was vague on details, but Apotheker billed the services as open and able to support many development languages, and designed to be used by any software maker. “We will only vet the applications for security and interoperability,” he said.

HP is launching some of the infrastructure services, “as we speak,” Apotheker said. But it will take time to build out a platform-as-a-service offering similar to Microsoft’s Windows Azure or Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud. The platform component of HP cloud will be available by 2012, he said.

HP already has the know-how to build such offerings. It is well-established as a vendor of consumer and data center technology, as well as the middleware software needed to glue different applications together. It has ambitions to be as large as some of the existing well-known cloud service providers.

“If you want to be in the cloud business, it has to be large-scale,” Apotheker said. “You have to be able to serve customers everywhere.”

But it’s unclear whether HP can attract software developers to its new platform and excite consumers and developers in the same way as competitors such as Google and Amazon.

HP expects to launch its app store next year, Apotheker said. That puts it years behind Apple and Google, who have 350,000 and 250,000 programs in their respective mobile software marketplaces.

Trying to catch up to a head-start like that will be a “challenge” for HP, which is hoping to get developers to write for its own mobile devices, said Mark Fabbi, a distinguished analyst with the Gartner research firm. “They’re a long way behind from that perspective,” he said. “You wonder how they can be relevant.”

On the other hand, the enterprise cloud computing space is very much up for grabs, Fabbi said. “Enterprises are looking for someone to lead them into this hybrid universe,” he said. “That’s an area where they have a much more practical opportunity.”

Investors have been looking for some reassurance since Apotheker took over from Hurd nearly five months ago. HP’s stock hasn’t done well since Hurd’s departure — it’s underperformed on the Standard & Poor’s 500 index by about 17 per cent — and financial analysts wonder if Apotheker has what it takes to lead the company forward.

While technology companies such as Google and Apple have seen their profits rise on the basis of their success in the consumer market, HP has been looking for a hit lately. Last month, it announced the HP TouchPad — a tablet that enters a market dominated by Apple’s iPad. Based on the webOS software that HP picked up in its 2009 acquisition of Palm, the TouchPad is expected to debut in June.

Apotheker, formerly CEO of SAP, is expected to focus more on the software side of HP’s business than Hurd, whose background was with hardware maker NCR. But the big question is whether Apotheker will be able to make his new company’s diverse product groups work together and deliver compelling new products.

“If you look at HP, they’ve got a lot of good areas, but can they get a multiplier effect because they’re HP?” Fabbi said. “If they can’t they might as well be separate companies.”

It’s going to take more than a vague announcement of strategic direction to prove that HP is moving in the right direction, however. Referring to Monday’s event, Fabbi said, “It was like they were saying, ‘Get ready for an announcement, we have some good stuff coming, but we’re not really going to tell you the details yet.”

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