Michael Vakulenko

Palm: $1.2B Down the Shredder

Palm: $1.2B Down the Shredder

[The acquisition by HP will not save Palm. Guest author Michael Valukenko explains why the sum of Palm and HP is close to zero]

As an old-time Palm user, I was always secretly hoping for resurgence of this familiar and trusted company. At a rational level however, I didn’t believe that the new Palm stands a chance in rapidly changing smartphone market. See my earlier analysis in Who can save Palm here at the VisionMobile blog.

HP’s acquisition makes Palm part of large and financially solid company, but doesn’t compensate for its other weaknesses. Smartphone competition today boils down to competition of service platforms with Apple and Google leading the way. Considering the realities of today’s smartphone market, there are very few real synergies between HP and Palm.

The three missing synergies

Today people don’t buy smartphones for their hardware, but for what they can do with them. This largely means software platform and services built around the phone. Both Apple and Google excel in this area, albeit using very different approaches.

Palm’s WebOS offers a slick UI and a promise of simplified app development by fully adopting the web paradigm. But it lacks a clear differentiation (a killer use case) and an ecosystem unlocking the device into hundreds or thousands different things people could do with it. Let’s face it: It wasn’t that WebOS devices didn’t sell well because Palm lacked marketing dollars. They didn’t sell because they weren’t good enough compared to competition. HP marketing money and distribution muscle won’t save the day.

Today’s leaders – iPhone, Blackberry and Android – all have clear differentiation: iPhone is all about entertainment and Internet and is backed by large iTunes user base. Blackberry sells mobile email and is backed by corporate IT adoption and a strong distribution network. Android seamlessly integrates with Google services promising free and open Internet. The vague notion of “HP Experience” looks pretty pale in comparison.

Critically important, app developers and Internet companies already have their hands full with iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Android, not to mention the upcoming Windows Phone 7. What does HP have to offer in exchange for some mind-share? Any bright ideas?

Last, but definitely not least. Mobile operators/carriers take on the lion’s share of smartphone promotion and subsidy costs, hoping to attract new subscribers and increase ARPU of existing ones. What can HP/Palm offer to convince operators to take marketing and subsidy dollars from iPhone, Blackberry and Android, and put them into HP/Palm?  I don’t see much. Do you?

Clear differentiation, developer mindshare and operator subsidies  are all critical today for the success of a smartphone platform. All these were and remain Palm’s weaknesses regardless of its financial situation. HP does not complement Palm in any of these critical areas.

Chasing the Apple dream
A quick glance at HP earnings breakdown reveals HP as an electronics equipment company at its core. The company generates most of it revenues from selling printers, laptops, desktop PC and servers. Smartphone unit sales are catching up to laptop sales, while laptop margins are getting thinner and thinner. It is easy to see how tempting would it be for HP management to try to emulate Apple’s model of selling high-margin devices.

However Apple owes much of its success to its vertical integration, which allows blending hardware, software and services into iconic products. This vertical integration is ideally suited for breaking new grounds and creating new product categories. It is critical factor in Apple’s ability to create such products as Apple Lisa, iPod, iPhone and iPad.

As explained by Clayton Christensen in this seminal paper, vertical integration is an advantage in emerging product categories, where it helps to overcome technical challenges. Vertical integration however becomes a disadvantage in maturing markets, where flexibility, customization and modularity are of greater importance.

It is difficult to see HP successfully reproducing Apple’s model. The opportunity to be the first with iPhone-like product does no longer exist. 

Is this good news?
The deal doesn’t look particularly bright for HP shareholders. But may be in the broad scheme of things the deal is great news for many other people: Investment bankers will pocket multi-million dollar commissions, Palm’s investors and management will be spared from their misery, HP executives will boost their ego, business newspapers will sell some ads, and bloggers (including myself) will have something to write about.

How do you think the acquisition will shape up for Palm and HP?

– Michael

[Michael Vakulenko has been working in the mobile industry for over 16 years starting his career in wireless in Qualcomm. Throughout his career he gained broad experience in many aspects of mobile technologies including handset software, mobile services, network infrastructure and wireless system engineering. Today Michael consults to established companies, start-ups and operators. He can be reached at michaelv [/at/] WaveCompass.com]

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