HP joins the Cloud, but others are ahead

In a surprise announcement, Hewlett-Packard is moving into the cloud. But could it ever rival giants Google and Amazon?

One of the world's most venerable IT manufacturers is flying into the cloud. The new boss of Hewlett-Packard, Leo Apotheker, has announced that HP intends to compete with Google and Amazon, both of which dominate the nascent cloud services field. According to Apotheker, HP intends to have a cloud offering for every level of customer, from consumer through to enterprise.

Although not entirely surprising -- as HP recently announced its cloud-ready WebOS would be on every PC it makes -- it's going to be a tough road ahead for HP, which is coming to the cloud party pretty late.

Above all, I can't help feeling that HP's approaching the cloud from the wrong angle. Google and Amazon have their own reasons for being in the cloud, and they're likely to be quite different from those of HP.

With its Docs product, among other things, Google's in the cloud simply because it wants to own our data. If it can give us the tools to get at the data -- whether that's an online office suite or even a mobile operating system -- then Google's just one step closer to that goal.

We pay for Google services by giving Google access to our data. Is HP as interested in data as is Google? Or, more likely, does it intend to launch cloud services that'll come with a subscription model? If so, bearing in mind that we expect everything online to be free of charge, how will HP convince us to open our wallets? HP's going to have to come up with something very clever indeed.

As for Amazon Web Services (AWS), there's little doubt its cloud services exist to make money. But Amazon has done a stunning job of simultaneously positioning itself as the best and also the fuss-free, bottom-dollar choice.

Users pay only for what they use. There are no minimum terms, and no requirement to enter into a service contract. All of this makes AWS ultra-accessible and also truly democratic -- you or I can use it to offload some of our computing requirements, while organizations like NASA also use it.

Can HP emulate that? And even if they did, do we need another AWS? It's not so much that Amazon is part of the cloud services marketplace. It is the services marketplace, and the services are so inexpensive that there's not the kind of discontent that drives customers to a different provider. Once again, HP is going to have to be immensely innovative to gain a foothold.

And that's the sad part of all this. Right now in various boardrooms, HP executives are no doubt talking about creating "cloud products." They're probably looking at what focus groups have told them people want. Market researchers will be a looming presence.

Again, compare and contrast to AWS. It started small. Through a system of being highly responsive to customer feedback, AWS engineers have built a mighty infrastructure of cloud services that address just about any need. In many ways, AWS is built by engineers for engineers. It's all about creating services that scratch an itch.

It's hard to imagine HP getting in at the ground-floor like AWS did. It would require too much humility for such a large and venerable corporation.

There is one area where HP could take the lead, however. If the cloud revolution goes to plan, pretty soon we're going to need cloud printers. Even the most cynical will agree that HP's pretty good at the whole paper-pushing thing.

We'll need printers that live on the Internet and seamlessly integrate with the likes of Google Docs, for all levels of users. And there's room for innovation in this area. Cloud printing will require more than simply spewing out page after page. Perhaps cloud documents printed while out on the road by could be stored in the printer's memory until the worker returns to the office. We might need printers that feature some kind of pigeon-hole system for workers who print when not in the office.

I'm riffing here, of course, and I'm not a product designer. But there's scope for development, and HP would be foolish not to grasp it. But that'd be a process of expanding its core competencies, rather than jumping off into an entirely new area.

The world could probably do with a few more cloud-enabled computers too, although HP shouldn't be surprised if take-up is gentle rather than rapid. Somebody needs to clear a path. HP could do that.

Just a few years ago it was de rigueur for once-mighty companies to grasp at open source to plug holes in their businesses. Sometimes it worked (Apple did OK, for example, as did IBM), but more often it failed. Now it feels like companies grasp at cloud computing instead. But in many ways the cloud presents far more of a challenge, and requires massive innovation. And there simply isn't any evidence that HP has what it takes.

Then again, I hope that I'm wrong.

Keir Thomas has been making known his opinion about computing since the last century. His latest Kindle ebook has just gone on sale. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com. His Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

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Keir Thomas

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