To answer the question posed in the title, it definitely is if you’re Palm!
A long time player and sometime innovator in the mobile device marketplace, Palm was rapidly losing steam, market share and relevancy in the hyper-competitive Smartphone market. The company had staked its future on its new WebOS software platform and the recently release Pre SmartPhone.
After a long period of decline due to an aging product line built on an obsolete software platform, the Palm Pre and its WebOS software was introduced to critical acclaim by industry reviewers and pundits. Had these introductions come a few years ago, they might have indeed turned around Palm’s fortunes.
But competition in the SmartPhone marketplace has heated up to a white-hot level. After a promising early start, sales momentum of the new Pre products stalled, and this “last-stand” product introduction proved to be too little, too late. At nearly the first sign of Pre sales weakness top Palm executives began bailing out, while Telco partners quit promoting the product heavily, and it was also being dropped from the assortment of major retailers such as Radio Shack. The end was clearing in sight for this handheld industry pioneer.
In swoops HP to save what little shareholder equity was left. HP is on a roll, and in conjunction with their upward momentum they seem to be intent on acquiring everything available for sale, as well as competing in nearly every category of the technology business. This particular acquisition appears to me to be particularly high risk/high reward. It raises several key questions:
Did HP pay too much?
Probably. The price HP is paying for Palm is about $1.2M, while most knowledgeable industry observers had placed the value below $500M. This is hard to understand for the casual observer, but you must remember that a company is worth what the highest bidder is willing to pay. Except for those on the inside of the deal-making, no one knows what the sizes of the competitive bids were. So it’s a bit pointless to speculate whether they paid more than they needed to. The better question is what is the intrinsic VALUE of Palm to a company like HP?
A case can be made in this situation for bidding at a price that will prevent the transaction from dragging out. Software loses value quickly–especially in a fast-moving market like SmartPhones, and this is largely a software acquisition. Another big key to the valuation question is whether or not HP is able to hold together and retain the Palm team, especially the key developers. In most cases, buying a software business (which is the key asset of Palm) without the team is nearly worthless.
Can HP compete in the SmartPhone business, and should they?
This is a huge question in my mind. Hewlett Packard is definitely becoming the 10,000 lb gorilla in the tech business. But even the biggest giants reach a limitation on resources, most importantly senior management bandwidth and market segment knowledge. IBM at one time looked much like HP today, competing actively in nearly every important technology market. Eventually IBM lost traction and did a painful restructuring focusing on services. Microsoft is huge and still dominant in software, but they’ve been far from successful everywhere they’ve invested. There are many examples in the tech business of competing in too many competitive markets at once. The often-used analogy (which still rings true) is to Hitler opening up a two front war by invading Russia. The old joke goes that had he been more focused, we might all be speaking German today. I am very skeptical of Hewlett Packard being able to win in all of the major markets they appear to be serious about at the moment.
Can putting two losers together ever create a winner?
Not usually. I can’t think of a single high profile successful instance of this, although I’m sure it’s happened before. It usually doesn’t work in such a highly competitive market as SmartPhones, however. Palm was around 5% market share and fading fast. HP is very successful overall, but its iPaq SmartPhone has less than .1% market share–I’ll bet most of you are shocked to hear that HP was even in the SmartPhone market prior to this deal! When there is a reason that both companies are unsuccessful, it’s very difficult to change the equation simply by combining. Mergers often create more problems then they solve, regardless of how good they look on paper.
Having said all this, there is some synergy here. There is a belief is that one reason the Pre wasn’t gaining much traction was Palm’s precarious financial position. No one wants to carry around a phone that could soon become an orphan. The HP acquisition should help immensely on that front. Hewlett Packard certainly has the financial might, industry muscle and influence to improve the position of a well regarded platform like the Palm Pre and WebOS platform.
Will HP be patient and persistent enough to win in SmartPhones?
To me this is the biggest question. If you asked me 10 years ago I would have said no. As a former HP employee, at one time this wouldn’t have been the type of market that I would expect Hewlett Packard to have success. But since them I’ve seen the company persevere for decades as an also ran in the low margin, down and dirty PC business, and finally push Dell out of the top spot. There was a time when Dell (and a few others) used to laugh at HP in the PC market–but that ended a while ago.
I’m convinced that this ever more powerful version of HP can succeed in SmartPhones if they so choose. But as discussed above, even in a giant company like this, can they win so many tough fights across so many difficult market segments? That is a different question entirely–and something may have to give. They might not be able to win on all fronts.
The bottom line for me is that HP can probably muscle their way into the SmartPhone market if they want to bad enough. But can they do it while they also compete with Cisco in networking, IBM in services, and Dell in PCs–just to name a few? Even for a successful industry giant like Hewlett Packard is today, I believe in the concept of “biting off more than you can chew”. That is the real risk. One thing I think for sure is that this won’t play out quickly. Only time will tell whether HP ultimately has the market knowledge, patience, tenacity and will to win in this hit-driven and brutally competitive market. What’s your take on this high profile acquisition? Post a comment to rev up a discussion.