Rubinstein should NOT be HP's new CEO

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| August 9, 2010

Late last Friday, at the optimal moment to keep news coverage to a minimum, HP announced the resignation of CEO Mark Hurd amidst sexual harassment allegations levied by a former HP contractor. While HP said Hurd was not found in violation of any sexual harassment-related codes, an internal investigation did find him in violation of the company's "Business Conduct" standards, apparently for using expense reports to conceal a personal relationship with that same contractor.

Whatever did/didn't happen there, and whatever HP is/isn't calling it, Hurd doubled HP's stock price and then some in his five years at the company's helm. So it's almost feasible to say he deserves the $40 million-plus severance package he's apparently getting in return for not badmouthing the company that didn't just find him guilty of sexual harassment. This on top of the $65.7 million he earned during the last two years of the gig (See those stats and more! over at the TechCrunch article I'm now citing).

So what next for HP? Lots of techie types want them to install former Palm head Jon Rubinstein as the new CEO - our own Alex Wagner took this stance when he wrote about Hurd's departure last Friday. MG Siegler even says doing so would give HP its best shot at becoming Apple. This would be a bad, bad move. Or so says me, a tech blogger who has no idea what it actually takes to head up a ginormous company where people get paid tens of millions of dollars to do deals with Dr. Dr and make sure their mistresses get paid five figures for freelance gigs that involve traveling overseas and having fancy dinners on the shareholders' dime.

I have no idea, really, what makes a good CEO. But I do have a pretty good feeling that Rubinstein doesn't have it - at least not when it comes to running H-frickin'-P - and instead should be the new CEO's right hand man, in charge of developing and evangelizing the bejeezus out of a whiz-bang new line of mobile connectivity solutions, while leaving things like deal making and money making and cost cutting to someone with a good track record in those departments.

A bullet point history of Mr. Rubinstein's time at, and before, Palm:

- Rubinstein leaves Apple in April 2006. During his time at Apple he rose to SVP of the iPod division and basically helped invent the iPod after Jobs tasked him with developing a portable music player, and there's no denying his personal success and his role in helping turn Apple from a niche PC maker to the consumer electronics and media giant it is today. Rubinstein had actually worked with Apple CEO Steve Jobs at NeXT, where he ran hardware engineering for Jobs. He then moved to Apple in 1997, where he oversaw many products before the iPod, and before leaving Apple to retire.. 

- Rubinstein came out of his one year retirement to join Palm in 2007. He revitalized the company with one heck of a modern software platform and an out of nowhere, Apple-esque launch event for webOS and Palm Pre at CES in January 2009. 

- Palm signed Sprint to be Pre's launch partner and exclusive carrier for an undisclosed time period.

- Pre was met with critical praise and industry-shaking hype at CES.

- Three weeks later, Sprint announced layoffs totalling 14.3 percent of its workforce.

- Pre launched on Sprint in June 2009, or six months after it was unveiled at CES.

- Rubinstein was named CEO of Palm four days after Pre hit store shelves.

- Pre garners lots of positive reviews but also draws criticism for hardware build quality and much-maligned TV ad campaign.

- Palm announces Pixi, the second webOS device, as another Sprint exclusive, with a November 15 ship date.

- Pre Plus and Pixi Plus announced for Verizon at CES in January 2010; AT&T also announces it will carry the phones later that year.

- Palm placed on Death Watch in March 2010.

- April 2010: HP announces it will buy Palm for $1.2 Billion.

- August 2010: HP CEO Mark Hurd resigns. To date, there have been no Palm product announcements since the HP acquisition.

Okay, so there's a quick history that no doubt skirts a ton of details. But the jist is this: Rubinstein was brought in to transform Palm. He created an amazing mobile operating system and a decent but eye-catching smartphone in Pre, but the company didn't generate enough revenue to make it on their own. Why? In my estimation, its because of the Sprint exclusivity deal, production/distribution issues including design and build-quality flaws, and an utter disaster of a marketing campaign.

Jon Rubinstein has a great track record as a technology and products guy, but he didn't show much during his time at Palm's helm that makes me think he's got the CEO-acumen to lead HP. The Sprint deal, those horrible TV ads, the build-quality issues with the original Pre - these are all bad signs. Yeah, Rubinstein was strapped for cash and infrastructure resources at Palm, and he may well have had to take the Sprint deal in order to pump enough cash into his company just to make it to a place where he could consider getting webOS onto a second carrier, but in essence the story of Pre is a bad one more than a good one: Palm had killer tech and a ton of unexpected buzz in early '09. By early '10, they were on the verge of going out of business.

HP should keep Jon Rubinstein around as a valued technology and product influencer, a right-hand man to whoever winds up taking the company's helm next. Task Jon with inventing HP's new line of tablet computers (I'm guessing they already have). Task Jon with inventing a truly useful way for smartphones and tablets and desktop/laptop class computers to sync with each other for their users' benefit. Task Jon to see what comes after tablet computing before Steve Jobs or Andy Rubin or anyone else does. Task Jon with bringing some innovation to a company that, despite using the word for their tagline, has sorely been lacking a truly innovative product for years now. Task Jon with sweeping every remnant of "iPaq" out of HP's halls and filling them with webOS 2.0, a refreshed webOS revitalized by the bountiful resources afforded by a massive technology corporation. 

But don't task Jon with running HP. That's not what he does, and it's apparently not what he's good at. Let the engineer invent solutions and design great products. Bring in a businessperson to run the ship. And HP, try to bring in a new CEO who'll at least know enough not to use corporate expense accounts to hide personal improprieties.