Why Dell will not bounce back

I love Charles Cooper of CNET and I respect the fact that he’s got to print so many column inches per week in order to earn his paycheck but I have to take issue with his latest effort (see here) where he tries to argue that while Dell looks like crap today, in fact Dell could bounce back just the way Apple did. Coop is light on details and specifics and just sticks to the argument that “times change” and that “Dell has bounced back from previous stumbles so who knows?” This is what passes for “news analysis” at CNET? I’m sorry but the article is glib and facile and, frankly, this kind of hollow pap is the reason CNET itself is headed for the dustheap.

As for the question, “So who knows?” the answer to that question is, I do. I know. Let me explain. What people overlook is that the advantages that allowed Dell to prosper for about a decade were all fleeting advantages. Dell was for a while an innovative company, but its innovations did not involve product design. They involved manufacturing and distribution efficiencies.

On the distribution side, Dell sidestepped the cumbersome and costly two-tier (or is it three-tier) distribution model that its PC rivals had allowed to grow up around them like kudzu until it was choking them and consuming a huge chunk of their profits. Selling to wholesalers like Ingram Micro and Tech Data who in turn sold to retailers who in turn sold to end customers — Michael Dell early on recognized that this was stupid and simply decided not to play ball. Instead he sold direct which gave him a price advantage and won him corporate accounts. The other PC makers knew they were caught in an abusive relationship with their channel but it took them a decade or so to unwind the old relationships and sell direct like Dell did. Game-changer here was the Internet which made it easy for anyone to set up their own Web store and build direct relationships with customers. Dell’s advantage got erased.

On the manufacturing side, Dell figured out faster than the others in its space how to squeeze component suppliers and play them off each other. They brought in loads of former Wal-Mart people to refine this practice. One example: If you want to sell parts to Dell you must agree to ship your parts to Round Rock, Texas, and store them in Dell-owned warehouses (paying rent to Dell!) and to hold them until the very moment Dell needs them at which time you drive your tractor trailer to the Dell manufacturing facility and unload your parts through the shipping bay — and only then, as the parts go across the threshold, does Dell take ownership of them. Thus you, Mr. Parts Supplier, end up paying rent to Dell for the privilege of carrying its inventory on your books. Nice, right?

Trouble with this “innovation” is that the advantages it creates are fleeting. What wiped this one out was a little place called China. Have you heard of it? The rise of China means everyone can make PCs pretty much as cheaply as Dell does. And it’s not just cheap manufacturing anymore. The real genius and power of China lies in its armies of low-cost and brilliant engineers. Seen a Lenovo box lately? Heck of a lot nicer than anything Dell is pooping out from its factory in Round Rock.

Bottom line is this: the only innovations worth making are the ones involving product ideas and product design. I mean, Duh. Right? It’s pretty obvious. What’s amazing to me is how few companies actually seem to realize it. To sustain an edge in any market you must make better products than your competitors, consistently, over and over and over again. Just making the same products as everyone else but taking a little friction out of the system can give you an advantage, but only a temporary one.

The other reason Dell won’t rebound is that the company is yoked to Microsoft. Vista has hurt them tremendously. Don’t doubt it. All of the PC makers know this and they are furious about it. But what can they do? They put their future in the hands of the Beastmaster. They figured they could deal with the Borg’s evil nature; they didn’t anticipate having to deal with the Borg’s incompetence. You may remember that ten years ago people were saying Apple should cave in and become a Windows shop too. You know why we didn’t? Because even ten years ago El Jobso recognized that Windows had become a hairball and foresaw the problems that the Borg was bound to have as the hairball got bigger and bigger and bigger. It was bound to collapse. It had to. It’s like using a Volkswagen car kit to build a space shuttle.

So instead of putting our future in the hands of the MicroTards we undertook the massive effort of creating a next-generation operating system of our own. A lot of people, including some very smart ones, said this was crazy. Especially for a company with 2% market share. They said we were suicidal, ridiculous, old-fashioned, hubristic, doomed. The effort cost us huge amounts of time and money and was far from a sure bet. But my feeling is if you don’t dare bet on yourself and your own people, you shouldn’t be in business. So we made the bet. And now it is paying off in spades — on Macs and iPhones and other devices which we have not yet announced but will restore a sense of childlike wonder to your lives, trust me.

Which brings me to the real difference between Dell and Apple — simply put, it’s me. When you boil down all the facts and data, the real bottom line on Apple’s rebound is that Apple rebounded because I came back to the company. I mean it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? I get tossed out, the company goes into the crapper. I come back, the company booms. You don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows, as the Allman Brothers once sang.

Now as for Dell, well, you know what their big problem is? Dell doesn’t have me. Or anyone like me. Mostly because, let’s face it, there isn’t anyone else like me. I’m one of a kind. Sui generis, as the French say. What Dell has is Michael Dell. Don’t get me wrong. He’s a nice guy. And a smart guy. But he’s not a visionary. He’s not an artist. The stuff he’s good at — squeezing suppliers, screwing distributors — was very cool ten or fifteen years ago. Today? No big deal.

The other thing people like Coop don’t understand when they do the “Apple rebounded, why can’t Dell?” argument is that Dell and Apple are not the same kind of beast. Dell is a company. Apple is not a company. Apple is an artist’s studio — and I’m the artist. Apple is the palette on which I do my work. Apple c’est moi, as Nabokov once wrote. Or was it Camus? I get them confused.

To think Michael Dell can do at Dell what I did at Apple is like thinking that if you give Michael Dell a striped shirt and put him in Picasso’s old studio and let him buy supplies from Picasso’s supplier then you’d have another Picasso. No. Apple is just that — it’s my paint store, the place I get my brushes and canvases and frames and smocks and the metal or clay or whatever Picasso used to make his sculptures. Apple is the loft where I do my work and make love to my nude models. Figuratively speaking. It’s the kitchen where I pose for wacky photos with loaves of bread.

The truth on Dell? Dell is Gateway. Dell is Kaypro. Dell is Osborne Computer. It’s DEC and DG and Apollo. It’s a flower that bloomed and now must die. It’s roadkill. It’s mulch. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a good thing.