Don't let HP drag you down into the slime

Don't let HP drag you down into the slime

Lew Platt must be afraid of Eckhard Pfeiffer. Very afraid.

I just don't know what other conclusion to draw. Platt, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP), must be absolutely petrified of Pfeiffer, the take-no-prisoners CEO of Compaq who has engulfed Digital to form the second largest computer company in the world. Pfeiffer's $US9.6 billion acquisition of Digital, the largest acquisition in the history of the computer industry, apparently has Platt sweating bullets.

I don't know what else could possibly explain HP's bizarre change in behaviour. It seems that Hewlett-Packard, the company we've all known for years as a bastion of positivism, professionalism and quality in a world where negativism and underhanded tactics are more the norm, has embarked on a global media campaign to sow doubt among Digital's users about the future of their supplier.

It never used to be this way. Sure, people like Sun Microsystems' CEO Scott McNealy have made careers of berating their competitors as a means of promoting their own companies, but that has never been HP's style. Over the years I have interviewed countless HP executives, from Platt himself to Bob Frankenberg (who went on to become CEO of Novell) to Rick Belluzzo (who went on to become CEO of Silicon Graphics), and I was always struck by the consistent message that came across: HP's secret for success has been to stay focused on its customers and to offer them top-notch products and best-of-breed service. How many awards has HP won for its customer service and reliability over the years? Has anyone managed to keep track?

But now, in the wake of the Compaq/Digital merger, HP has apparently come to the unfortunate conclusion that this strategy is no longer good enough to carry it forward and compete effect-ively against this new powerhouse. Now it seems HP feels the need to muck around in the same dirt with many of its competitors, and to deliver the message to the marketplace that Digital's customers cannot rely on their supplier under Compaq's dominance. The only way to escape this hellish scenario, of course, is to migrate to HP.

Perhaps you've seen the full page ad that HP took out in one of the Asia-Pacific dailies: "Digital. Totally committed to Unix. Until last month," the contemptuous headline reads. Then you reach the body of the text: "Compaq has always been married to NT, and Digital recently reaffirmed its support for the same operating system. Now Digital's Unix customers may be wondering what will happen to them. If you're using OpenVMS, Digital Unix or NT on Alpha in your enterprise, you might want to talk to a company that's been dedicated to heterogeneous enterprise computing for the last 20 years, as opposed to last month."

Well, if HP is referring to itself as the company Digital's hapless customers might want to talk to, which I presume it is, the HP folks have a pretty short memory.

I can remember just last November talking to Dick Watts, senior vice president and general manager of HP's Computer Sales and Distribution Group, who admitted the company's heterogeneous enterprise computing sales efforts were so screwed up they had to revamp the whole works. They had their Intel/NT server units pitching against their own Unix server units for the same business, which had been frustrating customers to no end, and creating all sorts of internal problems. Nothing to brag about, if you ask me. But at least back then HP was focused on its own problems and how to fix them.

HP's new approach isn't restricted to advertising. They're trying to drag the press into the muck as well by staging slide shows to convince us that Digital is going to abandon Alpha. One of our own reporters was treated to such a show by Vikram Mehta, Asia-Pacific director of marketing for HP's enterprise systems group. He claimed that HP has "one and a half less competitors to deal with because we think the Alpha has gone away". Never mind that analysts briefed by Digital are reporting that the company will begin shipping its third-generation Alpha 21264 in May. It's a lot more fun to spread a little fear, uncertainty and doubt.

No one can say with certainty what the future holds for the combined Compaq/Digital organisation. All I know is if I were a Digital customer, I certainly wouldn't allow myself to be swayed by the slimy tactics of one of its competitors.

I never thought I'd find myself saying that in reference to Hewlett-Packard. What a shame.

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