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HP's Big Bang Launch: Applying Innovation, Targeting Sony

HP's Big Bang Launch: Applying Innovation, Targeting Sony


One of the big problems for complex companies is whether they can leverage their expertise in one area in another. This is one of the reasons why complex companies like Sony fail: they suffer all the drawbacks that come with complexity, and they don't really get the synergies and economies of scale that are typically used to justify building complex structures.

Sony was the company many expected to dominate the emerging integrated consumer electronics sector, but dysfunction thwarted the success many took for granted.

Today, Hewlett-Packard is using its market-leading printing expertise to show what's possible when complex companies work together. Not only is it unveiling the most advanced printing system in the consumer segment today, but it's also showcasing cameras and TVs that use the same division's technology to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Sony's leadership change may simply have come too late. And the bottom line is that it may have put the company's entire consumer electronics product line, including its game consoles, at risk.

Redefining innovation in printing

The best inkjet printers on the market today produce photographic quality prints that rival silver halide photography. The problem is that if you print a lot, the ink can get pretty expensive. Part of the problem is that you have to frequently replace the print head with an ink cartridge, and you waste a lot of ink trying to keep the head from clogging.

I'm personally all about saving money, and what HP has done is downright cool (yes, I know cool and print are generally contradictory). The printer circulates the ink in the head to prevent clogging and avoids having to clean the head as often and waste ink. Because the print head is permanent, the cost (and price) of ink cartridges goes down, resulting in a lower cost of the product, as well as an increase in speed. This only makes sense if you do a lot of printing, admittedly; if you only print a few times a month, the traditional way is more cost-effective, but still, for us power users, this is a pretty impressive change.

Using pump technology that is very similar to the latest designs used in water-cooled PCs, the Photosmart 8250 is the first to employ this technology, making it the most technologically advanced printer on the market.

The device uses one cartridge for each color, eliminating the need to throw out cartridges full of ink when one color runs out, further reducing costs. The printer costs $199, and with HP actively blocking Dell's presence and making it very difficult for Kodak to enter the field, the technology on display will eventually make its way into a variety of consumer and commercial products. How much cutting edge technology can you get for $200?

Few would argue that printing isn't an important part of photography today, and Sony has very little in this regard.

Printing technology applied to television

A good HD TV is expensive, and the best on the market is undoubtedly the Sony Qualia, but it still costs around $10,000 and uses the engine from Sony's $36,000 projector. Quality doesn't come cheap.

To achieve a similar level of performance at an affordable price, HP looked at the problem and addressed it in much the same way it addressed the printing problem: it came up with a way to use electronic dithering techniques born out of printing to improve the picture quality of HD TV at low cost.

Another change was moving the cable connections to behind an easy-to-open panel on the front of the set. This still seems great, but is very obvious in hindsight. These old TVs are a real pain to set up (I myself have an old big screen that is a nightmare to plug in and change). Moving some sockets to the front or top for convenience is something the PC industry has done before with most consumer products, and many commercial products. This makes connecting related devices much easier.

HP is not yet a major TV player, with only one revolutionary TV and a limited product line. Sony is clearly under a stronger threat in this regard from companies like Samsung, but HP has just come along and landed a heavy blow on Sony's flagship product.

Camera/PC/Printer Integration = More Accurate Photos

One of the promises we always make with vendors who manufacture all three parts of a modern photography solution is to guarantee print accuracy. HP also showed off their new camera line. A company that was a laughing stock in this field until a few years ago, the new line is impressive and very competitive with Sony's line. Like the Sony, the cameras fit comfortably in the hand, are of high quality, and have excellent optical performance.

But what sets them apart is the tight integration with their printers that ensures greater color accuracy in the associated printouts. It's clear that pairing one of the new printers with one of the new cameras will provide the best experience. And there's one other feature worth pointing out: most models actually let you correct images in-camera. A prime example of this is the new R817, which is arguably HP's best camera to date.

HP's product line is still lacking both semi-pro and pro models but is otherwise very well-stocked, which is a strong message for a company still relatively new to cameras. Sony's product line is still rich but is tied to the less popular Memory Stick technology and doesn't have strong ties to printers or PCs, meaning it lacks the key synergies that were always expected to be Sony's defining advantage.

PCs: More attractive, more integrated, more AMD

HP has configured their Media Center line of PCs to link to both a printer and a camera. The Media Center design is much improved and features a much cleaner industrial design (starting to evolve into the Apple/Sony type of clean style). The printer and camera integration is configured with a similar industrial design so that the two products actually look like they come from the same company. They also come with preloaded software (including drivers) which makes the whole photography process much easier to set up and operate. This is sure to once again show what we've always expected from Sony but never really got.

The laptop line has a variety of AMD configurations that are unique this year and designed to target performance weaknesses of competitors (such as Dell) that are still banned from using AMD. These products often offer higher performance at lower prices, but the most interesting are the Livestrong laptops that are tied to automatic donations to cancer research. The extensive use of fingerprint recognition across the various lines allows HP to differentiate on security, and by targeting the small business market specifically, many of these products should be favored on both price and performance.

Sony should dominate in the PC media center category, but HP, with its continued focus on appearances, is starting to reach Sony's level of design excellence. Dell is the general target, but when it comes to consumer products, this segment is expected to be dominated by Sony (or Apple), with HP still dominating to a large extent.

Summary of launch and future outlook

This is the first major announcement since HP's new CEO took the helm and reflects a solid effort to bring together its various product groups to offer solutions for the consumer and small business segments. Sony has also made some recent changes in its leadership, but the situation is far worse, with a dysfunctional organizational structure remaining a weakness for the company.

It is rumored that Microsoft is looking to license Xbox technology in the future. There is no more likely licensee than HP. In that scenario, Sony has every reason to be scared. If HP can more closely tie Xbox to its own family of products, it could create synergies that could actually eliminate Sony's remaining revenue streams. Remember, HP also licensed the iPod. For consumers, the future always looks bright, and HP increasingly shares that bright future. For Sony's new management, some tough decisions need to be made if they really want to be in that future.

TechNewsWorld columnist Rob Enderle is a principal analyst at the Enderle Group, a consulting firm focused on personal technology products and trends. Read more reviews…




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