Nice Parting Gift, Dude!

Like it or not, Leo Apotheker managed to put his software-flavored stamp on Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) before he left.

The surprise choice to replace scandal-battered Mark Hurd as HP's CEO set the gears in motion to transform the hardware-heavy tech giant into a software and services operation with fatter margins. The $10.3 billion offer for data-management specialist Autonomy was a key ingredient in that soup -- and perhaps one that new boss Meg Whitman wishes could be undone.

But it's too late now. After Monday's closing bell, HP declared the offer "wholly unconditional" because 87.3% of Autonomy's shareholders has tendered their shares. So this is a done deal, and Whitman must figure out how to incorporate Apotheker's largest legacy into her vision of HP.

The old plan to sell a high-volume but tiny-margin PC division has apparently been scrapped, and the super-profitable printer division was never in any real danger. If Apotheker wanted to borrow the IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) blueprint, HP is now heading down a very different and less clearly defined road. The market hates uncertainty, and now there's more of it.

Watch the unwatchable
Watching HP doing business these days is a lot like watching slow-motion video of a 42-car pileup. You want to stop the horrific scene in front of you but you can't, and it's impossible to look away. The board that created this mess picked a proven tech leader in Whitman, but her experience from eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) won't necessarily translate into success for the HP conglomerate. And I'm afraid that Chairman Ray Lane might want to run the show with Whitman as a mere figurehead -- a Quisling puppet regime with some star power.

We'll just have to wait and see, but I don't think that the Whitman/Lane duo has a clue what to do with the Autonomy assets Apotheker left them, and I don't see an end to the misery anytime soon. Through a long series of thoughtless knee-jerk reactions, the culture of innovation that Bill Hewlett and David Packard created has become a dead end. The Apotheker hire was misguided, but at least it was bold. Now even that spark of hopeful creativity is gone.

Don't grab this falling knife!
And so the long, slow decline into nothing continues. You're better off owning a Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) index fund or a broad tech ETF such as Technology SPDRs (NYSE: XLK  ) over the next several years. If you're looking for a better IBM clone, the original Big Blue is doing great, and even Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) looks like a more likely turnaround candidate in that category. Either way, you should stay far away from this collapsing house of cards.

The Autonomy purchase didn't make any of this happen, but it ain't helping, either. Under this regime, it would make more sense to stay the course and spend billions on exactly the kind of things HP already does well; Lenovo  springs to mind as a better target, or maybe HP could have taken some uncertainty out of its server department by buying the Itanium chip design from co-developer Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) . But none of this can happen with the Autonomy purchase tying up so much of HP's spendable capital.

If Apotheker could feel the guillotine dropping, he left a fine going-away present for his executioners to clean up. I'm putting my professional reputation where my mouth is by rating HP Underperform in our CAPS system. Giants take a long time to die, but this one is going down as surely as the sun sets in the west. Feel free to follow along.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. He likes The White Stripes way too much, and found himself typing "Meg White" instead of "Whitman" several times while writing this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of IBM, Intel, and Cisco Systems, has bought calls on Intel, and has created a bull call spread position on Cisco Systems. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of eBay, Cisco Systems, and Intel and creating a diagonal call position in Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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