HP’s Biggest Obstacle Is Microsoft, Amazon vs. Apple, Voting Smart

This last week I spent some quality time at HP, and I’m frankly amazed at what the PC team has been able to accomplish in terms of overcoming what I’ve termed the “Big Company Disease.”

However, as I watched them struggle to create the best user experience on the planet, one that exceeded what Apple currently provides, I constantly saw Microsoft as their biggest problem. Speaking of Apple, Amazon reported stunning earnings for last quarter, and Steve Jobs’ negative comments on the Kindle suggests that an Apple e-Book is likely coming soon. Amazon is likely to put up a fight.

Finally, tomorrow a lot of you will be voting and, as I mentioned last week, it is in all of our best interests if you vote smart this time, as you could truly make a difference. I’m going to argue that you not only get out and vote, you get out and vote smart and help make the world a better place.

As we do every week, I’m going to point you to my product of the week, a new Gateway system that bridges the HD DVD and Blu-ray gap.

HP’s Longest Yard

HP, Dell and Lenovo are all doing incredible work. Dell brought back its founder, who is personally driving change; the IBM PC company spun out from under IBM to Lenovo and is paying strong dividends; but HP’s once-maligned PC unit did its even more impressive recovery from inside what has historically been one of the slowest-moving companies in tech and is not helping to transform HP.

While none of this is easy, getting out from under bureaucracy — as Lenovo has done — or actually having the direct power of the CEO and Board of Directors is probably an easier path than having to roll over a lot of people who make their living saying “no” to anything that is different. Having been in this position myself at IBM, I know how incredibly frustrating this is. When faced with the same problem, I was not able to overcome it to the same stunning degree that HP has done.

However, all three companies — in fact all PC companies — face a common problem in their quest to build a truly stunning solution that in all ways exceeds what Apple has been able to accomplish in terms of customer experience and satisfaction. Apple is far from perfect — it is still a niche player after all — but its recent growth and success is largely the result of them being able to showcase a customer experience that overcomes the company’s traditional disadvantages.

These disadvantages remain a very limited line of products, third-party software support, and integration into solutions created by others. No one is disputing that in terms of integration, partners and features, Vista is ahead, but buyers clearly seem to favor products that are easy and fun to use, and here, Apple sets the pace with a significant lead.

You get the sense in talking to all of the vendors that their Microsoft contacts have one thing on their minds when it comes to allowing these companies to innovate and create the user experience they want — and that is an overuse of the word “no.”

This wouldn’t be as bad if Microsoft stepped up and did stronger user experience work itself, but it often seems satisfied with the status quo. I don’t just hear this complaint about Windows, but about Windows Mobile as well, though often that is a different set of vendors.

It may go a long way toward explaining why Dell may be working with Google for their own phone effort.

Of all of the vendors, HP has demonstrated the strongest capabilities for getting around this “no” problem, and Linux has simply not proven to be a good alternative path. Someone will eventually figure out a way around this problem, whether it is getting Microsoft to say “yes” (recall HP actually made the Microsoft Home Media Server better), or pulling an Apple-like BSD end run. I’m betting HP will figure this out first.

Apple vs. Amazon

Amazon turned in some incredibly powerful financial results but was hit like most everyone else because of a gloomy outlook. Still, it easily beat most of the brick-and-mortar stores by showing the kind of growth even Apple would like to see.

Part of what Amazon brought to market last year was the amazing Kindle e-Book reader, which I now use much more than my MP3 player on a daily basis. Steve Jobs recently went public on his dislike for the Kindle. It is interesting that his reasoning seems to be that people don’t read — I think Amazon’s book sales would beg to differ.

I can recall when he said moving to Intel was stupid, that building a flash-based MP3 player was stupid, and that putting video on an iPod was stupid. He must be the dumbest guy on the planet by his definition, because he eventually did all of those things and they actually turned out rather well.

I think this goes to a behavior pattern of disparaging something until he can do it himself and that, when he focuses on something like the Kindle, he is likely to try to do it one better. The Kindle is far from perfect, though it represents as big a jump from what was already out there as the iPod did in its time.

What Amazon got right was the back-end and connectivity of the device; where it fell short was on the device design (it could be more attractive, is a bit difficult to hold, and lacks a light for night reading). If Apple knows how to do anything well it is building both a great-looking and easy-to-use device, and in getting the solution right. The question is, can Apple get as much access to content as Amazon, which currently is a massive power in terms of book sales, has been able to accomplish.

Amazon is advancing both its music and video download services as well and has yet to bring out an MP3/Video player to finish the solution.

Given the iPod is not yet a good wireless shopping device (something the Kindle does far better), and can’t seem to support the more consumer-friendly subscription model, there is room for Amazon to build a better iPod as well. These two seem well matched as competitors, with Apple having the edge on hardware (and some of the best brick-and-mortar stores on the planet); and Amazon on content and Web shopping.

What may spin this in Amazon’s favor is it partners vastly better than Apple does, and it is those partnerships that could make the critical difference.

Voting Smart

Last week I pointed to several sites where you could get information on candidates, and for most of us the choice has come down to two. My own dream competition is between McCain and Obama because in that instance I think the U.S. and the world become a better place if either wins. However, I’m not suggesting you follow my lead, because your interests and needs may be different from mine, and all the remaining candidates appear able to do the job.

I am suggesting you be heard and — particularly when it comes down to local initiatives — go up on the Web and spend a few minutes with your sample ballot researching who backs each of your initiatives and form your own opinion on them. So much of what you see on TV is supported by secret special interests. Here in California we have several casino initiatives which look to be blocked by Indians, but instead actually appear to be blocked by Nevada special interests.

That made a difference to me, and I’ll bet you have things on your ballot that appear to be something other than what they are. In the past I’ve seen alternative fuel legislation fail because of these tricks, and we are now paying for that at the pump. Major health initiatives have failed as well, and we pay for those with the lives of our loved ones. It doesn’t take that long, just bring up a Google screen and I’ll bet that in less than 30 minutes you can make yourself into a voter who scares the special interests half to death.

This year, like no other, you can make a difference if you do a little work. If you have the privilege to vote tomorrow, be a hero. Do your election homework, and vote this year.

Product of the Week: Gateway GM5664 HD DVD and Blu-ray PC

Most of us may think that Blu-ray now has an insurmountable lead, but he fact of the matter is a large number of my favorite movies like “Transformers” and “Stardust” are on HD DVD. This means picking one or the other right now remains a problem, and Gateway/Acer is the first of the major vendors to bring out a PC that supports both.

There was a time when we looked to Apple to bring out the next greatest optical drive, but Apple has moved to movie downloads and Gateway/Acer has stepped into the breach with an impressive solution that includes a TV tuner, AMD Phenom 9600 and a Terabyte of built-in storage for the very reasonable list price (given what it does) of $1,150.

I recently got out of the HD DVD vs. Blu-ray battle myself by picking up an Addonics combination drive (and making it a previous product of the week) and attaching it to my Alienware Hangar 18 media center and have been very pleased with the result.

Because this is the first system from a major vendor with the super/hybrid drive and because it allows the buyer to access to both the HD DVD and Blu-ray libraries, the Gateway GM 5664 is my product of the week.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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