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HP Cries for Help!

Few disagree that the PC industry has seen better days. With flagging sales, PC makers are struggling to find ways to move boxes without much success. The efforts to boost convertible PCs — combining touchscreens with a regular note-book form factor — have essentially gone nowhere. But it’s also true that it has yet to be demonstrated that customers even care.

In the latest move to right the sinking ship, HP, the world’s largest seller of Windows PCs, is running a “Back by popular demand” promotion that includes up to $150 in instant savings.

So what is HP bribing you to buy? Why a PC with Windows 7. Yes, Windows 7, that four-year-old operating system that simply won’t go away. Of course it’s also true that roughly a third of the PCs that go online are still running Windows XP, first released in 2001, and that’s true of the car dealer I visited the other day for an oil change. As the service rep struggled through the awkward and backward interface, I asked him if he was using Windows XP, and he admitted that he was. But he also said that he expects a new system will be up and running when the dealership moves to a new location this spring. So maybe they’ll move to Windows 7.


Now the skeptics might suggest that Apple is facing a similar situation since the uptake of OS X Mavericks allegedly slowed seriously in December. But it’s still installed on 37% of the Macs currently in use, which is pretty good for an OS that’s was out a little more than two months when those stats, based on online traffic, were tallied. Sure, OS X Snow Leopard, released in 2009, still garners roughly 20% of Mac traffic, but there are reasons why most users won’t give it up. First and foremost is hardware compatibility, that Mavericks doesn’t support some of the older Macs that can run OS 10.6. The only solution is to buy a new Mac.

Another important factor is that Snow Leopard is the last OS X release to support PowerPC apps. That’s a brick wall that can never be torn down. The only solution is for people with Macs otherwise compatible with Mavericks to upgrade the affected apps, if updates are available, or buy something new.

While I’m sure some people are avoiding Mavericks because of ongoing bugs, and Apple Mail remains somewhat trouble-prone, it’s clear some will never, ever be able to upgrade. The situation is surely not as serious as what Microsoft is confronting trying to induce PC users to upgrade to Windows 8, or simply buy a new PC, any new PC, with Windows 8.

For PC makers, returning to Windows 7 may be a way to turn back the hands of time to an era where sales were still increasing somewhat. Clearly Microsoft goofed big time with Windows 8. The strategy of offering the same touch-based OS on Intel and ARM hardware failed big time. Even if you ignore the Windows RT fiasco, there’s still the problem of people not taking to Windows 8 or the 8.1 fixer-upper. It’s a mess!

It’s understandable that Microsoft wanted to somehow stay relevant as mobile hardware takes an increasing share of the market. But it’s also clear that the Windows everywhere scheme just couldn’t work. Microsoft has been trying for years, but Windows has never been successful beyond the core PC base. Even the alternative, the tiled interface that began with the Zune music player, hasn’t worked so well on smartphones. Sure, Windows Phone sales are actually increasing, but those conquests may be partly at the expense of the dying BlackBerry platform. It remains an Apple/Samsung universe.

Now in the scheme of things, you’d think Microsoft has to seriously rethink its OS strategy. But it’s a huge question mark whether the company’s current leadership has the courage, or the ability, to make the key changes to set things right, or even that it’s possible.

True, it may take new leadership to straighten out the mess, but it’s not as if prospective and promising executives are rushing to be considered. One high-profile candidate, Ford’s Alan Mulally, has very publicly stated that he is not at all interested in taking the position. But it’s also true that Mulally doesn’t have experience in the tech industry and, at 68, might be regarded as more of an executive caretaker than someone with a long-term vision.

Besides, with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on the selection committee, you wonder whether any huge changes in company strategy would even be tolerated. If the new CEO wanted to execute a major overhaul in leadership and strategy, say of the level made at Apple when Steve Jobs first became interim CEO in 1997, those efforts would likely fly in the face of the old-timers who are still under the delusion that Microsoft is doing the right thing.

In other words, they are having trouble facing reality. But in a sane world, HP’s move to recover lost PC sales should come as a serious wake up call. The real question is whether anyone at Microsoft is paying attention, and if they are, what they are going to do about it. That decision may have a lot to do with the long-term future of the company.

And, you wonder when Dell, Lenovo and other major players in the PC industry will decide to follow HP’s lead and return to Windows 7 as fast as possible.