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HP President Alex Cho On Why The Rise Of The PC Is A ‘Structural Change’

As HP launches a massive new portfolio of laptops and monitors at CES 2021, Cho speaks with CRN about how the hybrid workforce should keep PC demand at high levels.

While 2020 proved that PCs can have a bigger role to play during a crisis, 2021 will show that the world transformed by COVID-19 continues to view the PC as “essential,” HP Inc.’s PC business head told CRN.

Alex Cho, president of the personal systems business at HP, spoke with CRN as the company debuted a massive portfolio of new commercial laptops and monitors at the all-digital CES 2021 tech conference. The lineup of business laptops spans premium devices such as the second-generation HP Elite Dragonfly, mainstream devices in HP’s EliteBook 805 G8 series and SMB-focused devices such as the newest HP ProBook models.

[Related: HP’s 10 Biggest Product Launches At CES 2021]

Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP is also using CES 2021 to unveil commercial PC monitors and brand-new devices such as the HP Elite Wireless Earbuds, which are aimed at enabling improved conferencing and collaboration for business users.

All of the new HP products are geared toward meeting the needs of business users as the COVID-19 pandemic continues—as well as the needs of the hybrid workforce, which is expected to split time between the office and home even after the crisis ends, Cho said.

“I absolutely believe that the PC being essential is not a statement that’s just cyclical for right now, during COVID. It’s definitely a secular trend,” Cho said. “Yes, today people can’t travel, so they must connect virtually. But in the future, when they can travel, they may not necessarily do so because technology gives them the option of not traveling all the time.”

Ultimately, “we don’t think that the energy that we’re seeing around the relevance of PCs will go away,” he said. “It’s a structural change.”

What follows is an edited portion of Cho’s conversation with CRN.

How has HP’s approach to its personal systems business changed due to the events of 2020?

For the ambitions that we had before, the world has basically given us occasion to fast forward. What we found [in recent years] was that people were spending more usage on a PC for creating, consuming, collaborating. And that was informing where we were creating new innovations. And then 2020 happens, and bang—the PC is essential. That’s really been our key word for last year—recognizing that this category is an essential part of helping people to stay productive, helping people to keep learning. The PC is essential, and staying connected is a fundamental need people have.

For us, that has meant that we’re only accelerating the things that you would have heard from us before—designing for better collaboration, enabling the office of the future, enabling people who want to create on their devices. So we’re accelerating in those areas, and we’re focusing a lot more on experiences. And then services, because people don’t want to pick and choose these pieces—they want computing, they don’t want a computer in and of itself. So for all of those things that we’ve talked about making progress on, it’s just been fast forward even more on that.

With the amount of demand that HP saw last year for PCs—more than you could even fulfill—did that change anything about how you ran your business or developed new devices?

There has been a mix shift in the industry toward a lot more mobile [devices]. When you talk to companies, for their business continuity plans, they’ve needed to have notebooks for employees that are working from home. So we’ve been rapidly shifting our mix to more notebooks. Secondly, you see a lot more [devices] needed for education. And another area which is really important is displays and accessories. If you’re working from home all day long, one of the most important things for you to be really productive is a big display and all the accessories around your device. [Products that] were a ‘nice-to-have’ before became a must-have. And so shifting to accelerate in those areas has been important for us.

What do you see as the key themes of your CES portfolio?

Our big theme is around, yes, the PC is essential as a category but people are still essential, and we need to innovate for them and look at what their needs are. Instead of people adapting to their device, it’s about the device adapting to them. The way that shows up in our announcements is we launched the new EliteBook 840 Aero. We recognize that when people are working from home, they’re actually moving a lot around in the home. Secondly, they’re often closing the lid and opening the lid, and they need to be quickly engaged. So we built in AI and sensors so that you can get instant-on, and it knows if it’s in a bag or not. So the time-to-productivity is accelerated. We’ve also seen that people have to address ambient noise. So we built in new AI-based suppression of external noise so that people can pay attention to you. The 840 is probably the world’s best-selling mainstream notebook—it’s really for this corporate workforce that’s working in hybrid environments. So we brought all of these innovations there.

Then there’s the Elite Dragonfly—we announced that last year, and it was extremely well received. We’ve taken that to a new level [with the G2 model]. We brought in 5G and we brought the latest in performance—still starting at 1 kg in weight and with all the security features. And we also introduced at CES the Dragonfly Max. We put as a goal to our engineers, assume people are in Teams and Zoom all day long. Let’s make the world’s most advanced collaboration device. And that’s what Dragonfly Max is. We’re bringing in a 5-megapixel camera that has a better image sensor, so that you get the equivalent of great vision. We call it the eyes, ears and mouth. We improved the number of mics, so that people can be heard better. We added in our new AI noise reduction capabilities to keep ambient noise out. And if you’re in calls all day long, you’re staring at a screen all day long. So we added Eye Ease, which is integrated for reducing the amount of strain on your eyes when you’re on the device.

We also are introducing, especially for SMBs, our Elite Folio. This is the world’s first pull-forward form factor—which we introduced in consumer [with the Spectre Folio]—now in commercial. We’re really taking the best of a phone, a tablet and a PC and bringing it together for what SMBs need. They need a device that adapts to what they do throughout the day—offers multiple modes, instantly activates as soon as you pull it out, always-on connectivity, long video playback.

We also announced a set of earbuds because we know that often, people want to use earbuds as they’re collaborating with other people. And we’re really tuning them not just for music, but [for speech]. It has the world’s most advanced capability in customized tuning, so that based on your environment and your own unique earprint, it is optimized so you can hear speech better.

If it wasn’t for 2020 and the increase in collaboration, do you think you would’ve ever developed your own earbuds?

Pre-COVID, collaboration was increasing. So the need for that use case of enabling audio was increasing anyway. It’s a huge opportunity, particularly in the business space. So that need was there. Secondly, there have been classic pain points [with earbuds], particularly related to PCs. Quickly pairing [to earbuds] on your PC is hard. One of the key things we solved was quick and easy pairing to your PC. And we recognize you also have multiple devices—so you can have multiple devices that you can quickly pair with—iOS, Android, our Windows device. So then COVID comes, and you’re doing this all day long and it took that general need and it just poured the kerosene on it.

So taking all of this together, do you see this creating greater opportunities for your channel partners in 2021?

Yes. For us, we have been and we will continue to be a channel-enabling company because it’s how we really maximize delivering value for our customers. As we innovate, all of this is goodness for the channel. No. 1, we’re innovating on the core PC for where people need it most—creating, consuming, collaborating. Secondly, that innovation is driving needs for refresh and additional PCs. Third is our displays and accessories. We’re also announcing a mouse that is configurable and has multiple presets, so that you can quickly work even more productively, and on any surface. And we talked about the earbuds. The opportunity to increase the shopping basket for our partners is definitely there with meaningful innovation. We have also announced as a part of CES, continuing to enhance services that are channel-enabled and channel-enhanced, that are very meaningful for our customers. It’s all based on data and AI and telemetry that allows partners and customers to more effectively manage devices and secure devices. And so, you would have heard from us before on more premium, more attach, more services—this brings all of that in spades.

What areas of innovation are you looking at next?

The first preview is, we’ve introduced it in our CES portfolio that we are focusing on far more than just the device. It’s the entire experience. As an example, Dragonfly Max is about great hardware, yes—but it’s also about integrating great software that’s curated in it. And I’ve just talked about services. So No. 1 is, you will continue to see a more holistic experience for the innovation that’s delivered. Secondly, security. With most PCs [in the past], security and manageability were built assuming that employees were on site. But the IT manager of today is dealing with a remote workforce that they have to serve, while their own staff is remote. And most of their tools have been designed assuming on-prem [usage]. And when you’re working from home on your own network, attacks are very high. So the ability to secure that endpoint has never been more important. So, continuing to up the capability around security—below the OS, in the OS, above the OS—is what you’ll see from us. And as well, not just built into the device, but as-a-service. What we found is if you deliver any great capability around security, if it’s not managed or turned on, it doesn’t matter. So enabling security as-a-service will be a continued set of things that you see from us.

Then the last thing I would just say is, [we’ve put in] many years of work around becoming more sustainable. Last year we announced that we have the most sustainable PC portfolio. We’re extending that to all of our PCs, displays, accessories—in fact we’re announcing our new Renew backpack at CES, which is made of recycled plastic. And as well, we’re looking at packaging and looking at the end-to-end value chain. That’s very important for us because we think that as we innovate in experiences for what people are doing in the new normal, we have to also continue to raise the bar on being more sustainable.

Many of your new laptops will have 5G as an option—how big of a deal do you think 5G will be on the PC? And how much do you think that depends on people traveling again?

It is a game-changer. And it’s not just a game-changer when people travel. I actually think that is a really big insight—it is a game-changer because fundamentally it allows far more universal access to content and the cloud. It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling or even if you’re at home and you may not have the right infrastructure—or if you’re a business setting up shop somewhere and you may want to put in that infrastructure there. What it basically enables is the ability to be not only constantly connected—it’s connected with a significant increase in the amount of content that you can access. It’s more than just a little bit faster downloading. That’s new use cases that you can enable. It will unlock new opportunities for us—more remote compute, more edge compute. We’ve done a lot around enabling more compute closer to the edge. We think that it is a key element. And again, for the channel, I think it’s all goodness. It’s a huge driver for refresh, a huge driver for broader solutions, a huge driver for enabling services, a huge driver for continuing to be really relevant. And security also gets addressed as you’re in a more safely connected infrastructure.

Because of issues such as security, do you think 5G could become even more dominant for businesses than Wi-Fi down the road?

Wi-Fi is a vulnerability. Public Wi-Fi is definitely a surface area of attack, and that is a challenge. And so, absolutely—being directly connected without being dependent on public Wi-Fi is a huge advantage of the direction to more 5G-enabled experiences. But again, it’s security, but it’s also around all the new use cases that you can enable with having far more ubiquitous, high-bandwidth, low-latency connection.

If you look at the amount of data, and a lot of the ML that is created—most of that actually is on the edge today. As much content is available via the cloud, there’s so much more being generated locally—video content, ML-generated data science. A practical use case is, just think about training and bringing in rich fidelity for it. We announced and are continuing to show progress around immersive VR for commercial training. That kind of content is high-bandwidth content. And so imagine a world where you can have the richness of real-time content, that other people are participating in, and that all is enabled wirelessly or remotely—that’s a huge opportunity.

There’s a lot going on in the CPU world right now—AMD is gaining a lot of momentum, Apple is cutting Intel out completely. What can you tell me about how HP is approaching its CPU choices right now?

When there’s a lot of innovation in [the CPU] space, that makes me very happy. And there’s a lot of innovation. Our approach remains that we really believe in customer choice. So we’ve already had a portfolio of different CPU offerings—that’s No. 1. Secondly, we are very much focused around curating the experience. And that’s very important because it’s not a single layer of the compute stack in and of itself that makes all the difference. It’s how you bring it all together—it’s how you bring CPU, with graphics, in a form factor that has the right performance and thermals, and is optimized for collaboration, and that safely connects into networks, and that can be managed as a service. It’s how you bring all that together. So I think innovation in the CPU space is greatness. And we continue to partner across multiple partners for choice. But we are very much focused on architecting that experience, which is taking all of that, and engineering it together for the key use case. The importance is not the individual part of the computing stack, it’s about how you curate it together.

How sustainable do you think this boom in PCs will be? Do you think this higher level of demand could be essentially a permanent fixture heading into the future?

I absolutely believe that the PC being essential is not a statement that’s just cyclical for right now, during COVID. It’s definitely a secular trend. Because what our customers are telling us, and what we’re finding in our insights, is that yes, today people can’t travel, so they must connect virtually. But in the future, when they can travel, they may not necessarily do so because technology gives them the option of not traveling all the time. And in fact, when it comes to learning--K-12 will probably be in the classroom, but for other types of learning such as higher-ed, the ability to tap into a wealth of resources and people remotely is huge. So remote learning and teaching will continue to grow. Being virtual may have some challenges, but there are benefits too. I talk to more customers and partners now than I ever have. It’s so efficient. We don’t think that the energy that we’re seeing around the relevance of PCs will go away. It’s a structural change. Because people using technology to be more connected, to be more productive, to learn, to be cared for—there’s so much goodness in the complementary nature of what computing does in the world. Even when you can travel.

So your sense is that a lot more activities will continue to be remote, and that that could continue driving a higher demand for PCs than we had previously?

There is going to be a hybrid workforce. People will go into the office, they’ll work from home, they’ll travel, they’ll be remote. And in that environment, you don’t want just any PC. You want a PC that has better collaboration, more performance, bigger displays. And so you have a need for all the innovation that’s happening.

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