Dell Deal: Business or Legacy?

Chris Davies - Feb 6, 2013, 11:24am CST
Dell Deal: Business or Legacy?

The temptation to draw parallels between Michael Dell and Apple’s Steve Jobs is a compelling one. Both founded technology companies that went on to great success; both left their position at the helm for some time, and then returned with great fanfare. However, Dell is not Jobs, and while the Apple CEO died leaving a vastly successful, hugely grown, and even fashionable company, Dell has struggled to do the same. Now, with Dell – along with a little financial help from some friends – wrenching back control of his eponymous company, the question remains: how much is righting the Dell ship with good business strategy, and how much is preserving the legacy of the business he gave his name.

That Dell and Apple’s paths – and Michael Dell and Steve Jobs – paths have diverged is arguably not surprising. Apple’s position in the market is very different to that of Dell, with the Mac and iOS ecosystems both paragons of control and self-determination; in contrast, Dell’s business is far more reliant on other pieces of the computing puzzle – Microsoft and its Windows OS being a significant component of that – and buffeted by other big names in the PC industry, like HP.

It’s easy to say that Dell’s strategy fell between the cracks between shifting with the marketplace and short-term investor demand. Certainly, the company’s lackluster attempts at the smartphone and tablet segments would seem to show signs of that; it takes time, effort, and investment, and even then you’re not guaranteed of success (look at HP’s webOS attempts for evidence of that). That’s not a juggling act that works well when you have shareholders watching over your shoulders, baying for profit, but it’s also something that’s incredibly necessary if you want to be successful in today’s market.

Dell’s original disruptive strategy in the PC business – back when we all had towers on our desktops, not laptops on our laps – was to make the computer ordering process a smorgasbord. Now, with spec flexibility less fashionable, and simplicity of range more prized by consumers and manufacturers alike, the time is ripe for another disruption in Dell’s business.

That disruption may not be so publicly visible, but it’s no less important. Wresting back control and taking Dell private means Michael Dell and his new business partners can play the long game that the consumer tech industry has become. There’s plenty to be said for a supply-chain that can shave margins to a minimum, and – as Windows Phone, Surface RT, and Surface Pro have begun to demonstrate – there are areas in which Microsoft’s platforms have potential as part of a joined-up ecosystem.

For Michael Dell, though, there’s much to be said for casting off the shackles of the peanut gallery. Steve Jobs had shareholders, but their demands were met with stoney resolution in the face of his unflinching vision for Apple. If Dell has a similarly sweeping vision for the company that bears his name, it’s been mired in board squabbles and the demand to answer the call for “more money now!” and to swiftly scythe away at anything that looks remotely like bad business.

That may well go hand in hand with a refreshed legacy: ending his tenure on a high point would be a fitting way to close out Dell’s position at the helm, something – despite the extra financial involvement – every party involved must at least be considering now. Still, raising capital is the easy part. Dell, both man and company, has a limited window for recreation, lest it go out with a whimper not a bang.

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