HP and 'cool:' Mid-life crisis, or misdirection?

After scandals and sales dip, Apotheker looks for a change of topic

It's not entirely clear why, but mainstream, respectable, traditional tech companies are going through some kind of mass mid-life crisis.

Intel, Polaroid and just yesterday HP have all done things that make it clear they're at least as concerned about being "cool" as they are about actually building things.

Apple and its raging success in phones and tablets appears to be the cause, but can't really be blamed when a bunch of aging tech guys who are clearly more comfortable in Sans-a-Belts are seen demanding to know why the tortured skinnies at Abercrombie don't come in a size 38, or paying $200 for a 'do that only looks a little less like a comb-over.

Most obviously, among Sili Valley's Wild-Hogs-wannabes are Intel and Polaroid are both paying celebrities to stand with them in public so a little charisma will rub off. (Will.i.am, Intel?Really?)

Instead they end up looking (at best) like early Mickey Mouse trying to perform in HD Technicolor.

"I hope one day people will say 'this is as cool as HP,' not 'as cool as Apple,'" HP CEO Leo Apotheker told the BBC yesterday, in an apparent moment of self delusion.

There's a lot of potential for sarcasm in a company that's nearly as far out on the way-too-conventional end of the spectrum as IBM trying to outcool a company whose business relies on slick design and only coincidentally includes electronics.

He was talking specifically about HP's plan to – for the first time since it defended a particularly off-putting brand of Unix as the finest operating system available – get into the OS business.

Feb. 9 it plans to announceWebOS, a web UI and operating system designed for netbooks, tablets and smartphones that was created and marketed – badly -- by Palm before HP ate and digested it.

WebOS, when it launches, will compete against iOS, Android, Windows, Symbian and a host of other operating systems, all of which have larger installed bases and a market that is crying out for fewer operating systems, not more.

Entertaining as that may be, it's more likely Apotheker's intention to say something outrageous to distract customers' attention from the string of idiotic scandal and outrage that have surrounded him since he moved over from the top slot at SAP four months ago.

Not only was SAP in the middle of a lawsuit that was more of a soap opera, with Oracle's chief invective slinger Larry Ellison heckling from center stage, Apotheker himself was replacing Mark Hurd, who scrammed out of HP inches ahead of a sexual-harassment lynching party.

Granted, having a CEO who generates sexual scandals made HP a lot more interesting than it is normally, but neither it nor the lingering questions about Apotheker's role in the copyright-infringement issues SAP settled with Oracle at a cost of $1.3 billion are really the kind of attention HP needs.

Neither is the $1.2 million salary, $4 million signing bonus, $4.6 million in relocation costs, or reimbursement for penalties stemming from violations of a no-compete clause in his contract with SAP that HP is paying its new guy.

Neither is the shakeup on the board of directors that rid Apotheker of five directors remaining from Team Hurd, or fourth-quarter results that show a 1.2 percent decline in PC sales, compared to an overall PC sales increased 3 percent.

Compared to those other potential points of interest, saying things that make the CEO seem out of touch with and unrealistic about what "cool" actually means isn't such a bad thing. It makes him look stodgy, though ambitious, and grossly inappropriate, like an aging uncle hitting on all the pretty young things on the dance floor at a family wedding.

Not attractive; not cool. But a lot better than the guy who may have overseen what Oracle called the theft of intellectual property, gross overpayments for himself and a sudden decline in business after taking over the top job.

Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Cool Leo Apotheker.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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