Dell and HP: a last chance for relevance

Dell and HP are the last of their kind, but that's not a good guide to their future survival, especially when neither seems a good fit for what's likely to happen next

HP and Dell, the last two PC manufacturers of note in the Western world, announced quarterly results on Thursday evening. Traditionally, that would be an excuse to compare their performances as arch rivals. Not this time.

It's more instructive to look at how closely they're aligned. The message from both was similar: profits are growing but margins are tight, but don't worry — corporate and/or consumer IT spending is coming back.

The companies are alike in other ways. Both have chief executive troubles — Mark Hurd has been thrown overboard, while Michael Dell's problems include a $4m (£2.6m) personal fine paid to the Feds and — even more worryingly — his board proclaiming their full support for him.

More worryingly, both companies seem misaligned with reality. There is brash talk of purchasing cycles, of corporate refreshes, of Windows 7-driven hardware upgrades. Such things have been staples of the past.

But what if that's all gone? What if cloud computing means you won't need new desktops — or laptops — for your employees for years to come? What if consumers are forsaking the next model of PC for a tablet, a smartphone or a netbook? What if the future for both corporate and consumer is SaaS and mobile? By now, these are familiar fantasies — the difference today is that they are looking increasingly realistic.

Assign whatever probabilities you like to the above: it doesn't look good for either company. Both rabbits are stuck in the same headlights, mistaking acquisition for strategy — HP buying Palm, signalling that it will have a sane mobile/tablet roadmap one day, and Dell buying 3Par, saying it will be there for the cloud at some point. (It's a la mode, alas: Intel and McAfee only makes sense as a fashion statement.)

Both have eschewed genuine innovation. In Dell's case, it's because the company has only ever had one big idea. HP's loss of creative power is more scandalous: Hurd got the company slim and attractive by bulimic levels of corporate starvation that have eviscerated its ability to invent.

Both companies need to relearn invention and recapture evolution, before the double punch of a different economic world and new technologies they don't control leaves them not only struggling, but insignificant.

Those chief executive troubles may be blessings in disguise and their last, best hope for change.