Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Who Would Buy Hewlett-Packard’s PC Business?

Now that Hewlett-Packard is “considering strategic options” for its Personal Systems Group — a.k.a. its PC business — a logical list of potential buyers is starting to take shape.

While for tax reasons it’s probably more likely that HP will spin the unit out as an independent company — there are no taxes when assets are distributed to shareholders — Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu, in a note to clients issued this morning, breaks down the possible suitors should HP opt instead for a sale.

Topping the list is Samsung, which you might have guessed already. Samsung would make sense, Wu argues, given its “large size and global ambitions.” Samsung has been trying to build a PC business since 1997, when it acquired AST Research, but hasn’t gotten anywhere. But it is the world’s biggest manufacturer of DRAM memory chips, used in PCs; and the largest supplier of NAND flash memory, which forms the basis of solid-state drives that are increasingly built into notebook PCs. It’s also a big maker of LCD displays and notebook batteries. All that vertical integration, combined with HP’s consumer PC footprint — it’s the biggest supplier to Best Buy — would make Samsung the worldwide player it has always aspired to be.

Don’t ignore the other players, though. Acer, Lenovo, Sony and even Dell could all conceivably show up with a bid, Wu writes. But it will all come down to HP’s asking price, and what parts of the business are included. Wu pegs HP’s PC business as being worth $8 billion, or about $3.66 per HP share. To calculate that valuation, he assumes a premium of five times profit of $1.6 billion on $40 billion in revenue; a five percent operating margin and a 22 percent tax rate.

One potential issue to watch in a possible Samsung bid: Whether the South Korean giant asks HP to include its webOS software. Samsung is also a huge supplier of smartphones around the world, and would probably like to rely less on Google’s Android than it does now — and would want to own its own operating system. Having decided to kill the webOS hardware business, HP has indicated that it has plans to keep the software alive in some form, though enough cash from Samsung might change HP’s mind.

Wu also argues that the market has gotten too negative on the PC business in general. While it’s true that Apple’s iPad has left a historically significant mark on the PC universe, PCs aren’t dead yet — just ask Intel. Give them iPad-like touchscreens and flash drives for instant-on capability, and the market might rebound, he says. “We believe longer-term tablets and PCs are the same market. Ironically, we view Apple’s MacBook Air as the first generation of these future hybrid PCs.”

Update at 9:38 AM PDT / 12:38 PM EDT: Samsung just issued a brief statement saying it’s not interested in HP’s PC business. Such rumors are “not true,” the company says. Well it’s really not a rumor exactly, but speculation really. Somehow I don’t believe it’s the last word on the subject.

(Image, obviously, is from the sheet music of the number “Who Will Buy?” from the musical “Oliver!” Hear it below.)

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