HP and Autonomy - a marriage made in hell?

  • 23-Sep-2011

This past week HP fired their CEO Leo Apotheker, making him the third CEO in a row to part with HP prematurely. But of all the departures this one one is the least surprising by far. His announcement that he was to buy Autonomy for a staggering $10.3 Billion -- far more than anyone else figured the firm was worth -- and spin off its market-leading PC division was surely the most spectacular act of self-immolation in a long time.

Fact is though the new CEO Meg Whitman (ex-eBay) is pretty much stuck with the Autonomy deal. Recall that Autonomy is a UK headquartered firm, subject to UK law. That means that -- short of HP discovering something huge and adverse about Autonomy that they did not already know -- HP has no option to back out short of citing fraud. Furthermore, it's a cash deal so no shareholder agreement is necessary.  Meanwhile, Whitman says she is "excited about the Autonomy deal." Well, excitement can mean a lot of things, but in this case I suspect fear and trepidation will a part of it.

Who knows what HP is actually buying. I doubt HP does. Our family tree of Autononmy acquisitions over the years paints a complex picture in and of itself, but the fact that the IDOL OEM business seems to be central to the valuation of the firm is what puzzles us much more than the pandora's box of document management and search related products HP will acquire.  In that box may well be some neglected and very wonderful products that HP can dust off and deliver to a much larger audience than Autonomy could ever have done. Furthermore with HP's deep and wide research and development team who knows where their product management and sales folk could take these products?  Perhaps much further than Autonomy ever could. 

But back to that troubling issue of the OEM business, because that is the real sticking point for all us technology watchers.  Leo Apotheker wildly stated that Autonomy had "a strong cloud based solution set" and Autonomy claims that over 400 software companies are building applications using Autonomy IDOL.  Well first off I am not sure what this strong cloud based solution set consists of...is it the archiving solution from Zantaz that Autonomy acquired? Surely not as that would contribute a tiny fraction toward this valuation. As for the 400 software companies building applications on IDOL, in effect embedding (OEM) IDOL, we just can't find them.  What we can find is a lots of people using basic document filtering widgets (KeyView) and some using the old Verity K2 search engine, but hundreds of software firms using IDOL? They are nowhere to be seen, at least by me, and I watch pretty closely.

In my gut, I think this deal may still get derailed.  If not, the negative repercussions could be huge for HP and its shareholders.  As for those contemplating buying Autonomy products, I hardly need to state that you would be very well advised to defer any purchases until this potential fiasco has finally settled down and we see where the pieces finally land.