How HP accomplished what Apple could not

Analyst Opinion – One of my favorite books is “Inside Steve’s Brain”, one of the best written books on how Steve Jobs saved Apple.  What makes this book great is that it attempts to teach the reader how to think like Jobs does. There is a section that talks about one of his failures. He asked his engineers to create an attractive motherboard and they proceeded to create an attractive motherboard that didn’t work. This was one of the few times in Apple’s history where someone made Jobs appear stupid. But, I’ve been thinking: What if Jobs wasn’t stupid? What if the engineers in their natural tendency to listen to the words, but not understand what Jobs actually meant, screwed up instead and killed an idea that later was put into impressive reality by HP?

What caused this thought was that I was filming Fast Forward for Tech Close Up (the syndicated TV show we do once a week) about the new HP Firebird the other day. While waiting for the crew to finish lighting I found myself staring at the inside of this box and thinking “damn, the inside of this thing is actually as good looking as the outside. “

“Wait a minute,” I thought that wasn’t possible, and then an idea pummeled its way through my brain and I had an “oh crap” moment. Maybe Jobs was right and an attractive motherboard does matter.

Dealing with engineers

As a class of people, engineers tend to be very, how can I put this kindly, precise in their speaking and listening skills.  Perhaps a better word would be incredibly literal. They, as a group, expect a high degree of precision in their communications and when Steve Jobs asked his engineers to make the Apple motherboard look good they had a minor coronary first, because a non-engineer was directing them on board layout and second because he was asking them to lay out a board in a way that wouldn’t be performance optimized.
Steve Jobs is more of a concept guy. I doubt he really intended to mean that his folks had to balance the board so that all of the colored parts, similarly sized parts, and shapes be moved around to create a work of art. He just wanted the inside to look good and, outside of their very attractive tower cases, he never really got what he wanted.  

HP gets it done

HP’s Voodoo group wanted the inside of HP’s gaming computers and workstations (the inside of HP’s current workstations are full shrouded to optimize airflow) to look good as well, but rather than mucking with the motherboard they did something what automotive manufactures do. They used shrouds.   More prominent in their latest workstation line than even in the Firebird (this really started with the Blackbird), they basically covered up things that aren’t that attractive with shrouds and used them to direct airflow so that they are also largely functional. The result: Workstations and gaming computers that look as good inside as they do outside.
Ironically, I think this was exactly what Steve Jobs wanted from his own folks and HP got it done by using their gaming division to talk to the engineers and, rather than bumping heads, came up with a market leading small computer design.
To be clear Apple, and I said this recently, is held up as the standard for a firm that does the impossible.  I just thought it is interesting that on this one thing, HP got it done when Apple did not.   I think there is a lesson here.

Wrapping up:  Lesson learned

The lesson for me, and you, is that sometimes a bad idea isn’t truly bad. It may simply be misunderstood.  This idea of Steve’s shows that, I think, he had a great idea and it was just his people who did not listen to what he wanted and instead circled the wagons and tried to teach him a lesson.   But I also think that the lesson was more theirs than Steve’s, because had they listened they could have done something else amazing.
That could be true for all of us. If we don’t try to understand what is being asked of us before fighting the request, we’ll likely miss a number of great opportunities.

This year, we’ll need every opportunity we can get.  

Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.