HP summons the apothecary to banish all its ills

The appointment of SAP man Leo Apotheker to head up Hewlett Packard underlines just how urgently it’s felt in the company that it competes hard against Oracle.

The SAP culture is rather different from HP’s – the unkind might say that the German software giant is 10 points of boredom east of the not exactly dashing Hewlett Packard.  Leo Apotheker had worked at SAP for 20 years and helped build it into the giant combine it is.

He’s well aware of Oracle and the threat it poses to other companies with which it overlaps. Larry Ellison (70) might be many things, but he’s a shrewd and driven businessman who takes no prisoners. Sun Microsystems competed with HP in the storage business – go figure.

So let’s just figure this out a little bit more. HP gets Apotheker and ex-Oracle president Ray Lane – Oracle gets ex-HP CEO Mark Hurd. In which other areas do HP and Oracle compete?

Just last week, Oracle held its “World” jamboree out in San Francisco. Hapless Intel executives gazed out of the windows of Moscone West at a huge sign heralding Oracle World with the words “Hardware” and “Software” flanking Oracle much like the twin pillars of Jachin and Boaz protect Isis Unveiled.  Oracle is serious about selling big tin after its acquisition of Sun Microsystems, and along with the big tin it wants to sell software and services.

HP wants to do the same, of course – and while it’s got many IT arrows in its quiver, its services arm, according to the latest financial figures it released, isn’t doing quite as well as it might want.  Part of Apotheker’s function, no doubt, is to beef up that division.

It’s also interesting that HP has hired Ray Lane to its board. Lane knows Oracle up, down, sideways, inside and out. He is a real tough guy – we interviewed him some years ago and like Larry Ellison isn’t interested in taking prisoners. He’s a VC of the old school, too.

Apotheker, we suspect, will come as a bit of a shock to the existing HP senior suits. What he brings to the party is a comprehensive knowledge of the enterprise and corporate marketplace, and he has a real handle on outsourcing.  HP has got plenty of different divisions but software certainly hasn’t been its strength in the past.  Quite how it will fill this gap will be an interesting sight to behold.

Meanwhile, both Oracle and HP are, like red kites, circling telecomms software company Comverse – and IBM is interested too. Because Big Blue is caught up in the fight between HP and Oracle, and it’s not going to sit around as the other two giants peck each other to death.

And, of course, there’s another dimension to this too. SAP itself will be watching what’s happening between Oracle and HP with really quite a lot of interest. Can Apotheker, like a modern Paracelsus (pictured), be the apothecary to cure all HP’s ills? And achieve the aim of turning HP lead into pure gold?