Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen was absolutely right last week when he talked about Hewlett-Packard's sacred place in Silicon Valley.

Andreessen, a valley golden boy and an HP board member, knows the company's place as well as anyone. And he spoke of it on Bloomberg TV with a sentimentality that is rare in tech circles and especially rare in venture capital circles.

"This is the company that built Silicon Valley," he said, "and (it) deserves to be a glorious success story."

It does deserve that, but somehow I just can't see glorious happening. It brings me no joy to say so. I've always been a sap, and so for years I saw HP as a rich part of Silicon Valley's history; a part not only of how technology and technology companies developed, but a big part of how Silicon Valley as a culture formed. It's our primordial ooze; the rock upon which we've built this place.

But today, watching HP is a little like watching an elderly loved one lose his marbles. The changes and setbacks are confounding and discouraging. Today, the company that was built on the idea of "managing by walking around" appears to be surviving on the idea of managing by stumbling along.

The litany of HP's missteps over the past dozen years have been well chronicled: a messy proxy fight over Compaq during which William Hewlett's son, Walter Hewlett, was dumped from the board; board members spying on fellow board members and journalists; buying Palm only to abandon the mobile operating system that came with it; announcing it was eventually getting out of the PC business, which killed sales; and then not getting out of the PC business, which caused confusion; buying software company Autonomy for way more than it was worth; changing CEOs the way some people change socks.


Advertisement

Add to that a shrinking market for PCs and printers, battered employee morale in the face of massive layoffs and a stock price in general decline, and you've got a story that is something other than glorious.

"Certainly the travails of this company have not been healthy for the business," says Charles Elson, a corporate governance expert and professor at the University of Delaware. "Business is tough enough without having these kinds of significant distractions."

After reading a particularly well-done and particularly depressing New York Times column about the recent, self-absorbed drama in HP's boardroom over who should stay and who should go, I began to honestly wonder whether HP could survive another decade. (Long story short: James B. Stewart reported that then-chairman Ray Lane was pressured to leave the board after a weak showing in a shareholder vote. Instead he agreed to give up the chairmanship. Lane said actually the board asked him to stay on.) The scene Stewart presented was so bewildering that for a moment it had me wondering whether Hewlett-Packard would still exist 10 years from now.

For those, who like Andreessen and me, believe that HP is valuable for reasons beyond the products and services it sells, it will come as a relief to know that I couldn't find anyone who thought I was on to something.

"I think HP is here to stay," said Trip Chowdhry, of Global Equity Research, "but it will be very different from what people think it to be." Chowdhry says the company will need to move quickly to adjust to a technology landscape in which the cloud is the center of the tech experience for the nation's workers. Big internal corporate networks with servers, routers and other hardware that Hewlett-Packard sells are becoming a thing of the past.

Of course, CEO Meg Whitman has said repeatedly that she is pushing for a bigger presence in cloud computing and emphasizing opportunities the company can seize in security and big data. She's also said shareholders and others need to be patient; that it's going to take time to turn HP around.

So maybe my 10-year-survival question was less than artful. Who knows what can happen in 10 years? Your guess is as good as mine. And of course, a company like HP -- a global behemoth with nearly $119 billion in sales last year -- doesn't simply disappear. Pieces might be spun off (though Whitman says HP's won't be) or reconfigured or even added.

And given that the HP name itself has incredible value, it's hard to imagine that in 2023 there won't be something in the valley called Hewlett-Packard.

So maybe in the end, the question isn't whether Hewlett-Packard will survive 10 years. Maybe the question is: In 10 years, will we still care?

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.