How Long Will Hewlett-Packard Give Whitman a Free Pass?

Turning Hewlett-Packard around was always going to be a tall order, there's no denying that. The challenges were many and varied when Meg Whitman took the reins as CEO in September 2011. Today, you can't help but wonder if Whitman pines for the good-old days as CEO of eBay.

The Autonomy acquisition fiasco, stepping through what had become an executive revolving door, and leading a company littered with outdated products and services were just some of obstacles Whitman has faced in nearly two-and-a-half years of leading HP. But as HP shareholders mull over Whitman's tenure, it's time to ask some difficult questions.

Is the past really the past?
Whitman isn't to blame for the Autonomy mess; HP announced its intention to acquire the software vendor a month before she took over. So some investors have given her a mulligan on that one, and the massive $8.8 billion writedown HP was forced to take as a result. But should they have?

Whitman was serving on HP's board when the Autonomy deal was done, and was named in the $1 billion lawsuit that shareholders filed afterward. The assertion was that she and other senior execs tried to sweep the problem under the rug, until May 2012 when Whitman and HP were forced to come clean.

When Whitman said she inherited a company with no "silver bullets," meaning a tired product lineup in a declining PC market, she was spot on. In part because of HP's slow transition to growth markets like cloud computing and big data, Whitman didn't expect significant changes until at least 2015. Makes sense: Turning around HP is like trying to make a U-turn in an ocean liner. But how long should investors give Whitman to demonstrate something that indicates her plan is working?

HP is not alone
There are a lot of similarities between longtime rivals and cohorts HP, IBM and Microsoft when it comes to turnaround efforts and changes in strategic direction. Like HP, IBM, and Microsoft were both slow to the cloud and big data, and in Microsoft's case, mobile devices. But that's about where the similarities end.

Already the No. 1 provider of big data solutions, IBM is by no means content, as evidenced by its decision to invest $1 billion to open a big data division focused on its cutting-edge Watson computer. The Watson Group is expected to help meet IBM CEO Ginni Rometty's aggressive goal of reaching $20 billion in big data revenue by 2015. Somehow it's difficult to imagine HP growing its big data revenue as impressively.

Microsoft's mobile ambitions are well documented, and so too are its gains in smartphone OS market share and the pending acquisition of Nokia's devices and services unit. Every bit as remarkable are the results of Microsoft's efforts to grow its cloud computing revenue. Last quarter, Microsoft enjoyed a 103% jump in commercial cloud revenue; that, combined with top-line revenue growth even as it executes its shift in business strategy, is what differentiates it from HP.

Final Foolish thoughts
No one who follows HP should be surprised it hasn't returned to its former glory in two-and-a-half years, that'd be a miracle. But as IBM and Microsoft have demonstrated, it is possible to make significant transitions in a relatively short period of time and have something to show for it. IBM and Microsoft aren't growing as fast, overall, as some Fools would like, but in strategic markets like cloud computing and big data, and mobile in Microsoft's instance, both are providing investors with tangible results.

HP? A strong performance in its Software as a Service business in fiscal 2013's fourth quarter was about the only positive indication that Whitman's focus on cloud computing and big data is finally beginning to take hold. HP reported revenue declines in five of its six operating segments, though that still beat lowered analyst expectations. HP's annual revenue has also declined for three straight years and counting.

At this stage in HP's turnaround, and halfway through Whitman's third year at the helm, shareholders have the right to see some results. As it stands, CEO-speak from Whitman, such as, "Our Q4 results demonstrate that HP's turnaround remains on track heading  into fiscal 2014," following HP's last earnings release, is about all investors have to hold on to. That may have been fine a year ago, but it's time to start delivering.

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Fool contributor Tim Brugger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends eBay. The Motley Fool owns shares of eBay, International Business Machines, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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