Stick a Fork In It: Dell Is Done

By Farhad Manjoo , written on August 11, 2012

From The News Desk

Sometimes when life gets too stressful, I try to remind myself that things could be rougher. Sure, I’ve got a raucous toddler and three deadlines in two days, but at least I’m not a coal miner. At least I don’t toil in a factory that renders pink slime. And best of all, at least I’m not running a large American personal computer company that has no conceivable way of combating an existential threat to its business.

I highly recommend this as a stress-reducing technique: However ugly your life gets, just try to put yourself in Michael Dell’s shoes. Imagine what that’s like. Picture yourself at the helm of a company that rakes in $60 billion in annual revenue — and then watch the money evaporating, floating away on a post-PC cloud. You built this company on the theory that computers were a forever-business, that the world would never fall out of love with the PC, and that you would be the guy to supply their fix.

The tragedy is that you were right: The world will never fall out of love with the PC. The PC is still riding high, the PC will be bigger than ever. What blindsided you is how the word “personal computer” would come to be redefined.

The PC is not the standalone, high-maintenance, low-end commodity device that it once was, the device that made you, Michael Dell, the king of computers. The PC is now a dozen different kinds of devices that are connected through one of two or three dominant platforms. The PC includes not just laptops and desktops but also big tablets, small tablets, and surely a coming wave of hybrid devices that function as several of these things at once. All these products favor the skills that Dell, as a commodity bottom-line chaser, has never had a chance to develop: An eye for design, a flair for user interfaces, seamless data management, excellent customer service, magical marketing, and the ability to present a coherent story about how the products can fit into people’s lives.

In a week and a half, Dell will announce its second-quarter earnings results. Expect a bloodbath. In the first quarter, back in May, Dell gave the market a goose egg — analysts had expected Dell’s revenue and earnings to fall from a year ago, but the company slumped way worse than people were guessing it would. Shares tanked, and they haven’t recovered. Analysts aren’t expecting anything stellar this time — Dell said its outlook was weak — but I suspect Dell could deliver another shock, presenting numbers that will begin to confirm a permanent downward trend.

But even if Dell slightly beats the whisper number, its bigger problems will remain: Dell is running out of options. In the commodity business, it’s getting eaten by better, more efficient Asian manufacturers, especially Lenovo and Acer. Hewlett-Packard and IBM, which used to compete with Dell for PC scraps, long ago pushed themselves into providing consulting and enterprise services, far more lucrative businesses than Dell’s PC game. Dell is trying to go high-end, too, but it’s moving far later, and its sales teams are having a hard time competing.

But the largest looming threat is the tablet — a business Michael Dell says he never anticipated rising as fast as it has. Don’t ding him for that; a lot of computer companies were caught flat-footed by the iPad. But when they finally understood the threat, other tech titans didn’t dither. You can blast HP for bungling the Palm acquisition, but at least it did something to fight the iPad. Google, meanwhile, is completely reworking its original Android plan, getting deep into the hardware business, even at the cost of harming its relationship with device maker. Then you’ve got Microsoft, which, with Windows 8’s new interface and the Surface, is making the boldest change to its fundamental model in years — one that it freely acknowledges could harm its business.

And Dell? What’s Dell’s plan to survive the radical transformation of the PC industry? “We have a roadmap for tablets that we haven’t announced yet,” its chief sales officer said earlier this year. OK then — guess they’re on it?

You can see the consequence of Dell’s dithering in its sales figures. Every quarter, the research firm Canalys puts out a report on what it calls the “client PC” market. The report defines “personal computer” in broad terms — it counts sales of laptops, desktops, netbooks, and tablets. In January, according to that measure, Apple became the leading PC manufacturer in the world, selling 20 million iPads and Macs over the holiday quarter last year. In that report, HP was second, Lenovo was third, and Dell was fourth. In May, Canalys released another report — this time HP was ahead of Apple by a slight margin, but Dell had slipped all the way to fifth. Then, a couple weeks ago, Canalys released its third report for the year. Apple was again back on top — it sold 21 million PCs, significantly ahead of HP’s 13 million. But Dell? It was still struggling in fifth place. Dell sold only 9 million PCs for the quarter.

You might wonder if it’s “fair” to count the iPad as a PC. If you just looked at traditional computers, Dell would still be ahead of Apple — Dell sells more grey boxes than Apple sells silver ones. Isn’t the iPad something else completely? And isn’t Dell’s traditional business still valuable even if it hasn’t come up with an answer to the iPad?

Yeah, and if you only count the times he's asleep, I’d be faster than Usain Bolt.

Whatever “category” you put it in, the iPad is a personal computer: Yes, people don’t use it for all of the tasks that they’d do on a laptop, but we don’t use laptops for all the things we’d do on a desktop, and we put those two devices in the same category. The same goes for netbooks — nobody thought twice about calling those clunkers “PCs,” even though you couldn’t run Photoshop on your netbook.

All of these devices have their strengths and weaknesses, but if you define a “PC” based on a set of tasks rather than a set of specifications, the iPad has to be included — it allows you to do most of what most people want to do on computers, at a killer size and price that makes up for its deficits (you can’t type very fast on it).

To its credit, Microsoft, which until not long ago was the PC business's undisputed leader, sees the way the market is shifting. Windows 8 and Surface may be bet-the-company-level gambles, but they’re gambles in the right direction — in the direction of the kind of gadgets that people want to use. Dell isn’t doing anything so bold. Leaks of its Windows 8 tablet reveal nothing spectacular. When it’s finally released, it will elicit howls of delight from no one, anywhere.

And that will be a huge, unfixable problem. By the end of this year, consumers and businesses will have lots of great tablets to choose from: The iPad and probably the iPad Mini, the Nexus 7, and two versions of Microsoft’s Surface.

Against all this competition, who would choose a plain-Jane Dell? I wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. Would anyone?