Fear Compels HP and Dell to Stick with PCs

For better or worse, Hewlett-Packard remains committed to the personal-computer business, neither selling off nor spinning off that unit in accordance with the wishes of its former CEO. At the same, Dell is claiming that it is “not really a PC company,” even though it will continue to sell an abundance of PCs.

Why are these two vendors staying the course in a low-margin business? The popular theory is that participation in the PC business affords supply-chain benefits such as lower costs for components that can be leveraged across servers. There might be some truth to that, but not as much as you might think.

At the outset, let’s be clear about something: Neither HP nor Dell manufactures its own PCs. Manufacture of personal computers has been outsourced to electronics manufacturing services (EMS) companies and original design manufacturers (ODMs).

Growing Role of the ODM

The latter do a lot more than assemble and manufacture PCs. They also provide outsourced R&D and design for OEM PC vendors.  As such, perhaps the greatest amount of added value that a Dell or an HP brings to its PCs is represented by the name on the bezel (the brand) and the sales channels and customer-support services (which also can be outsourced) they provide.

Major PC vendors many years ago decided to transfer manufacturing to third-party companies in Taiwan and China. Subsequently, they also increasingly chose to outsource product design. As a result, ODMs design and manufacture PCs. Typically ODMs will propose various designs to the PC vendors and will then build the models the vendors select. The PC vendor’s role in the design process often comes down to choosing the models they want, sometimes with vendor-specified tweaks for customization and market differentiation.

In short, PC vendors such as HP and Dell don’t really make PCs at all. They rebrand them and sell them, but their involvement in the actual creation of the computers has diminished markedly.

Apple Bucks the Trend 

At this point, you might be asking: What about Apple? Simply put, unlike its PC brethren, Apple always has insisted on controlling and owning a greater proportion of the value-added ingredients of its products.

Unlike Dell and HP, for example, Apple has its own operating system for its computers, tablets, and smartphones. Also unlike Dell and HP, Apple did not assign hardware design to ODMs. In seeking costs savings from outsourced design and manufacture, HP and Dell sacrificed control over and ownership of their portable and desktop PCs. Apple wagered that it could deliver a premium, higher-cost product with a unique look and feel. It won the bet.

A Spurious Claim?

Getting back to HP, does it actually derive economies of scale for its server business from the purchase of PC components in the supply chain? It’s possible, but it seems unlikely. The ODMs with which HP contracts for design and manufacture of its PCs would get a much better deal on component costs than would HP, and it’s now standard practice for those ODMs to buy common components that can be used in the manufacture and assembly of products for all their brand-name OEM customers. It’s not clear to me what proportion of components in HP’s PCs are supplied and integrated by the ODMs, but I suspect the percentage is substantial.

On the whole, then, HP and Dell might be advancing a spurious argument about remaining in the PC business because it confers savings on the purchase of components that can used in servers.

Diagnosing the Addiction

If so, then, why would HP and Dell remain in the PC game? Well, the answer is right there on the balance sheets of both companies. Despite attempts at diversification, and despite initiatives to transform into the next IBM, each company still has a revenue reliance on – perhaps even an addiction to — PCs.

According to calculations by Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu, about 70 to 75 percent of Dell revenue is connected to the sale of PCs. (Dell derived about 43 percent of its revenue directly from PCs in its most recent quarter.) In relative terms, HP’s revenue reliance on PCs is not as great — about 30% of direct revenue — but, when one considers the relationship between PCs and related related peripherals, including printers, the company’s PC exposure is considerable.

If either company were to exit the PC business, shareholders would react adversely. The departure from the PC business would leave a gaping revenue hole that would not be easy to fill. Yes, relative margins and profitability should improve, but at the cost of much lower channel and revenue profiles. Then there is the question of whether a serious strategic realignment would actually be successful. There’s risk in letting go of a bird in hand for one that’s not sure to be caught in the bush.

ODMs Squeeze Servers, Too

Let’s put aside, at least for this post, the question of whether it’s good strategy for Dell and HP to place so much emphasis on their server businesses. We know that the server business faces high-end disruption from ODMs, which increasingly offer hardware directly to large customers such as cloud service providers, oil-and-gas firms,  and major government agencies. The OEM (or vanity) server vendors still have the vast majority of their enterprise customers as buyers, but it’s fair to wonder about the long-term viability of that market, too.

As ODMs take on more of the R&D and design associated with server-hardware production, they must question just how much value the vanity OEM vendors are bringing to customers. I think the customers and vendors themselves are asking the same questions, because we’re now seeing a concerted effort in the server space by vendors such as Dell and HP to differentiate “above the board” with software and system innovations.

Fear Petrifies

Can HP really become a dominant purveyor of software and services to enterprises and cloud service providers? Can Dell be successful as a major player in the data center? Both companies would like to think that they can achieve those objectives, but it remains to be seen whether they have the courage of their convictions. Would they bet the business on such strategic shifts?

Aye, there’s the rub. Each is holding onto a commoditized, low-margin PC business not because they like being there, but because they’re afraid of being somewhere else.

3 responses to “Fear Compels HP and Dell to Stick with PCs

  1. If you look at IDC/Gartner quarterly PC shipments over the last few years, the rest of the industry has been catching up to HP and Dell. HP and Dell haven’t done well for a long time.

    These days, the smartphone and tablet are attracting the attention of the consumer. Money that might be spent on a PC is being spent on other gadgets. The PC market could soon become a shrinking market. Could 2011 be the first year?

    I think that we are entering the post-PC era, and HP and Dell are headed the way of IBM in the post-mainframe era. Apple is poised to be a leader in the next chapter of the information age.

    • THanks for the comment, Dave.

      I agree that tablets completely wiped out the netbook and are increasingly cutting into notebook PC sales. There’s no question about that.

      There’s also little reason to think that Dell and HP will do any better in tablets, whether running Windows 8 or Android, than they’ve done in PCs. They’d just be reprising the same performance they’ve given in the PC market: slapping their logos on products designed and manufactured in Taiwan and China, powered by somebody else’s chips, and running somebody else’s (Microsoft’s or Google’s) operating systems.

      Apple has done things differently, as I’ve mentioned in this post.

  2. Anonymous (for obvious reasons)

    You are wrong about the economies of scale and component costs. Example: HP doesn’t buy chips from Intel in the same way that an ODM does: HP buys in massive multi-billion dollar deals. Those deals would be much smaller without the PC components; aggregating the purchase of server and PC components allows HP to get better pricing. HP provides key components like CPUs to the ODMs because HP gets better pricing on them.

    The ODMs don’t have as much leverage over the component suppliers as large OEMs and are in a weaker position partly because they cannot rely on the demand from their customers (e.g. HP) and thus can’t commit to deals of the same scale. OEMs can yank business from one ODM to another.

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