Computer maker Dell raised eyebrows this weekend when the company’s chief commercial officer Steve Felice claimed in an interview with Reuters that the Dell sees plenty of space to compete with Apple in the tablet market. Rather than trying to come up with a so-called “iPad killer” that will knock Apple’s now-iconic device out of popular consciousness, Dell sees its success in a strategy based on Windows 8 tablets.
“We have a roadmap for tablets that we haven’t announced yet. You’ll see some announcements… for the back half of the year,” Felice told Reuters “We don’t think that this market is closed off in any way.”
Dell has infamously failed to get a toe-hold in smartphones or tablets with its Android-based Venue, Aero and Streak devices. What does Dell think would be any different about Windows 8 — and why?
Where we’ve been
In the mid-2000s, Dell was the world’s largest computer maker, first beating out Compaq and then a combined Compaq and HP for the top slot. Much of that success was based on a direct-to-consumer sales approach: Instead of going into a computer store and buying a stock configuration, Dell advertised and sold systems directly, taking out the middleman. Customers could place orders with Dell — complete with custom configurations — and Dell would ship the PC to their door. The formula was a success, businesses and bulk purchasers began to see the appeal of cheap commodity PCs. Founder Michael Dell became one of the youngest heads of a Fortune 500 company in the history of American business. Dell’s just-in-time manufacturing strategy revolutionized the PC business.
However, the formula faltered. One reason Dell was able to keep its costs down was that it invested very little in research and development compared to other PC makers — that meant that Dell had trouble innovating relative to the rest of the market, and struggled entering new markets in competitive ways. Although Dell saw some success with a display business, folks looking for high-end PCs tended to turn elsewhere, and the company was caught flatfooted by developments like Apple’s success with the iPod. Dell attempted to diversify its lineup with premium computer offerings — introducing its XPS line and acquiring boutique gaming system maker Alienware in 2006 — but its efforts in other consumer products largely fell flat. Anyone remember the DJ Ditty? The Axim PDA? How about Dell’s HDTVs — did you know Dell is still in the HDTV business?
Dell also undercut its business with a financial scandal that saw the company restating years of earnings, and had Michael Dell and other executives agree to personal sanctions and a $100 million settlement with the SEC. The company also alienated its core customers through outsourcing support, often to overseas call centers.
Dell’s new strategy
Since its heyday as a maker of consumer PCs, Dell has been reinventing itself as a technology company: Not one that caters to consumers and individual customers so much as one focused on corporate IT, government, and enterprise. That basically means Dell sees its primary competitors to be firms like Oracle, SAP, and (above all) Hewlett-Packard, rather than the likes of Acer, Lenovo, or Apple.
Dell’s first big move was acquiring Perot Systems for $3.6 billion — this the same tech services company founded by former Reform party presidential candidate Ross Perot. Dell supplemented that move with acquisitions like Compellent, SaaS integrator Doomi, cloud and backup firm AppSure, and (just this month) network security firm SonicWall. Dell also lost a high-profile bidding war for cloud storage operator 3Par — and lost it to arch-rival HP.
Dell’s enterprise chief recently declared the company is no longer about “shiny boxes,” but about providing end-to-end IT solutions for large, enterprise clients. To be sure, Dell will happily accept an order for a PC or a shiny new ultrabook, but the company believes its future lies somewhere besides consumers’ checkbooks.
Dell’s tablet strategy
Dell’s hints about its tablet strategy reflect this new-found enterprise positioning: The company doesn’t seem to be thinking it can create the fabled “iPad killer,” but that it can deliver vertically-integrated products that will appeal to enterprise, corporate, and government customers. And Dell’s big bet there will be Windows 8, rather than Android.
Despite the myriad of corporate employees (and even executives) who are bringing iPads and other iOS devices into enterprises whether IT groups like it or not, Dell feels there is a a market for non-iOS devices that integrate directly with corporate security systems and device management, with full interoperability with corporate systems like Microsoft Exchange, Sharepoint, Office 365, VPNs, and cloud-based storage solutions.
Early reviews of the Metro interface Microsoft is building into Windows 8 and Windows on ARM (WOA) have been strong. Although many have jarred by the transition between Windows’ traditional desktop and Metro, Windows 8 tablets will be an Metro-only affair, and presumably benefit from a more unified ecosystem centered around a tablet form factor and touch capabilities. “We’re very encouraged by the touch capability we are seeing in the beta versions of Windows 8,” Felice told Reuters.
Dell has not announced any specific tablet products, or whether it intends to develop tablet devices based on ARM processors (which would be Metro-only), Intel processors (which could handle Metro as well as a traditional Windows desktop), or both. Industry speculation is that Dell will attempt to run the gamut, offering ARM devices at the low and while pitching Intel-based tablets as high-end products with greater capabilities.
Dude, would you buy a Dell?
The problem with Dell’s tablet strategy is that the company has yet to demonstrate that it can compete in the mobile technology space — whether for consumers or enterprise.
To be sure, Dell has tried. Dell’s entries in the MP3 player space were poorly received — and were largely rebranded products from Creative. (To be fair, HP failed here too: At one point HP actually sold Apple iPods.) Dell was a player in the PocketPC game with its Axim line of PDAs, based on Windows Mobile. Although some enterprises embraced the platform, Windows Mobile was generally run off the road by RIM’s BlackBerry platform — and Dell’s offering was generally regarded as unremarkable in the space.
As Android matured, Dell tried to get its foot in the door with smartphones…but the company couldn’t persuade U.S. carriers to adopt the devices. So, Dell’s initial Android smartphones (the Mini3) wound up debuting in China and Brazil. Dell eventually brought the Mini3 to the United States as the Aero, and followed up in early 2011 with the Venue — except, again, Dell didn’t get carriers on board. So far, Dell’s principle success in smartphones seems to be in China, where it’s making devices for Baidu’s variant Android OS.
Android tablets? Again, Dell had big plans with its Streak line, Android devices with 5-, 7-, and 10-inch displays. Except the Streak 10 was never launched in the U.S. market (it did launch in China), Dell discontinued the Streak 5 in August 2011, and the company quietly withdrew the Streak 7 in December 2011. That was the last anyone heard of Dell in the tablet market. And anyone who purchased one of those tablet devices probably has a sad story to tell about Android updates.
So the number of successes Dell has had in the mobile market can be counted on the fingers of one foot.
Although Dell hasn’t ruled out making more Android devices, Dell’s renewed tablet strategy seems focused squarely on Windows 8 and the enterprise market. However, it will not be alone in that space: Samsung, Lenovo, and Hewlett-Packard are all working on Windows 8 tablets. Lenovo and HP are very strong players in the enterprise market, and both have outpaced Dell in worldwide computer sales. Industry attention also riveted on Nokia last week as the company indicated it’s working on Windows 8 tablets. Nokia’s entry in the Windows 8 tablet space could be a major development. Thanks to the company’s all-or-nothing bet on the Windows Phone platform, Nokia has privileged status in the Metro world. Nokia doesn’t just bring decades of experience building mobile devices to Windows 8, it can also exert influence on the operating system.
Apples to oranges
Readers will notice there’s one thing that has characterized all of Dell’s computer and mobile offerings to date: The company focuses on providing commodity hardware that runs third-party operating systems, whether that be Windows, Android, or Windows Phone. At best, a Dell device will run that software as well as its competitors. Dell has tried to lather on services and extras to increase the appeal of its devices, but they haven’t fared well. Dell parked its own “Stage” interface on top of both Android and Windows, and even tried to make consumers salivate by offering to pre-load CinemaNow movies on computers. Both crashed and burned.
It’s hard to imagine Dell deviating from its pattern with its forthcoming Windows 8 tablets, or suddenly unveiling an in-house R&D revolution that forges a new product category. Instead, Dell’s value proposition to its customers is that it can offer an end-to-end series of solutions — from tablets to phones (maybe) to PCs to services to infrastructure to highly-reliable hosted services. And if companies buy big, they can get a discount on all those things. Just as with direct-order personal computers, Dell’s strategy is a race to the bottom: cut out the middleman, work with customers directly, lower costs as much as possible, and undercut the competition. In a broad sense, the only thing that’s changed is the Dell is now targeting enterprises, corporations, and large organizations instead of everyday consumers.
Ultimately, that means consumers can expect to see the Dell brand continue to fade into the background. Dell could still be enormously successful as a company, but if everyday consumers decide to embrace Windows 8 tablets, they probably won’t be embracing a Dell.