Presumably vendors pay big money to have their executives interviewed by Gartner analysts in front of a large audience during a keynote session at events like this week’s Gartner Symposium 2012. HP’s Meg Whitman may want to ask for a refund.

Whitman was hammered with tough, almost uncomfortable questions from Gartner’s Yvonne Genovese and Neil MacDonald through much of the 45-minute “mastermind” Q&A session. That was as it should be, of course, given the tough road HP has been on the past few years – there are lots of issues to answer for.

But Whitman, who admitted she’d been steeled from her recent (unsuccessful) bid to become governor of California, fielded the questions with aplomb. She was a bit defensive at times – answering many questions starting with “Look” for example – but never came close to becoming unraveled. At the same time, she made a bit of news and offered some insights.

Asked to respond to Cisco CEO John Chamber’s recent comments that the math was not in her favor on turning HP’s fortunes around, she noted that in the networking space HP had 18% unit share and 11% market share and was “moving fast.”

“When you put 320,00 HP people against a set of tasks, don’t bet against us,” she said. “I’d rather have my hand than John’s hand right now.”  (See what I mean about how the run for governor? Sounds to me like something a politician would say.)

Asked to name the best HP acquisition, Whitman was equally diplomatic, quickly naming a handful including Compaq, 3Com, 3PAR and Arcsight. Asked to name the worst she offered only that there were some “challenged” acquisitions and that the company was working to fix them. “You have to remember that I ran for governor of California,” she said to excuse the non-answer.

In terms of news, Whitman said HP would not offer a smart phone this year or next but expects to at some point beyond that. She would not bite when asked which OS the device might support.

She also wouldn’t take the bait when the Gartner analysts asked her what she thought of Microsoft entering the hardware space with its Surface tablet. Microsoft is still a good partner, she said, noting she’s known Steve Ballmer since they both worked at Procter & Gamble many years ago. “I come from a world of coopetition,” she said. “I’m very comfortable with that.”

But isn’t it unfair that Microsoft doesn’t have to pay for the operating system and applications it puts on its hardware, whereas HP does, the analysts asked. “Everything is fair,” she replied. “It is a cutthroat, very competitive business. That’s what I love about this business.”

Whitman’s plan to repair HP is to take a long view. She called 2012 a “diagnose year,” when she will lay the foundation for future growth, focusing on cloud, security and information optimization. Next year is a fix and rebuild year that will see big investments in research and development, security and products such as tablets. HP will reap the benefits of the plan in 2014 and beyond, when the company will see increasingly accelerated growth.

When the Gartner analysts noted that HP’s previous two CEOs had similar growth plans, she said they did not necessarily build for the long term. While she could make drastic cuts to improve the picture in the short term, “we’d pay for that in the long term,” she said. “My view is we’re on a good path and see some nice momentum.”

A year from now, she said the measure of success will be whether HP is one of the leaders in cloud, is leading the pack in terms of converged infrastructure and is number one in the enterprise tablet market. Lofty goals indeed.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,