Government // Mobile & Wireless
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1/11/2010
11:43 AM
Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson
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Full Nelson: Who Is Dell?

Absent a clearly articulated strategy behind its recent acquisitions and partnerships, there are gaping holes in the company's evolving personality.

Who is Dell? A memory lingers but little else, less because of Dell's relevance in any given market, more because it's difficult to surmise what the company stands for any more. None among our own long-time market observers and CIO advisory board members can articulate Dell's identity. It's amid this haze that several us journey this week to Round Rock, Texas, hopeful but skeptical.

Dell's market share in its traditionally strongest markets--PCs and servers--has declined: Acer has overtaken Dell in worldwide PC shipments, according to some figures , and the company's share continues to slip in the U.S. Dell's server sales are a distant third behind IBM's and HP's. Dell will likely always matter here, shipping server congeries to cloud providers and enterprises for pedestrian processing tasks, or desktops and laptops through retail channels or directly online; but all that it imagined and invented has become banal and mimicked and, worse, less profitable.

Now the company is hedging its bets with small form factor devices: an Android-based smartphone and a tablet concept, both announced at the Consumer Electronics Show last week. In the past, Dell would have launched itself into these crowded markets with the promise of standardization and price advantages from a supply chain it squeezed like Kirstie Alley into an exiguous bikini. Nobody is expecting any big breakthroughs in features or pricing or design. The best that can be guessed is that the product line will be solid; it will get the job done. Which is, in a way, also the worst that can be said. Dell is no Apple, no HP; it's not even Dell, or at least the one we knew.

Thanks to all the hoopla around the latest personal platforms--the oohs and ahs that accompany each incremental product from the likes of LG and Motorola--Dell can be forgiven for jumping in like the last stream of confetti to fall at the party. Surely this won't be like the company's moves into home entertainment or printers or shopping malls -- all distractions, in comfortable hindsight.

For Dell, the real battleground, the one with the high profit margins, is the data center. Here, Dell offers servers in every configuration, with blades, virtualization, and a choice of iSCSI storage from its Equallogic acquisition or Fibre Channel from its EMC partnership, recently extended through 2013. But EMC and its VMWare unit have cozied up to Cisco, so in the enterprise Dell must do battle with a deathly combination of competitors: HP, IBM, and the Cisco cabal. No small matter by itself, but HP and Cisco have established their own definitions of unified data center fabrics. (For an excellent, in depth comparison of offerings, with pricing scenarios, download this digital issue of Network Computing.)

Beyond the competitive landscape (and leaving Oracle/Sun aside), Dell is still struggling to lay out a strategy behind its recent acquisitions and partnerships, leaving gaping holes in its evolving personality. With a war chest of some $10 billion and IBM's former M&A chief, Dell seemed ready to enter its pillaging phase. So far it has managed to conquer a few managed services companies, along with Equallogic (storage) and Perot Systems (services). Clearly, these are big deals from a financial standpoint, but the Perot acquisition ($3.9 billion) hasn't been well articulated; it says: just like HP's assimilation of EDS, only...well, not quite as good. Some CIOs doubt Dell can deliver services to the enterprise market. More confetti.

At Dell's Round Rock headquarters this week, maybe we'll hear why Michael Dell was on stage at SalesForce's DreamForce and at Oracle World...but won't be making time to talk personally to InformationWeek on his home turf, as IBM's Sam Palmisano did with us recently. Maybe we'll hear answers to all of this. Or that Dell is decidedly going after SMBs with "solutions," while serving the enterprise market with commodity products where it makes sense.

A new decade awaits.

Meantime, if you have thoughts about Dell, or pressing strategic questions, please send me an e-mail at fnelson@techweb.com. We'll try to get answers and will report what we find out after our team's visit.

See also related blog post: Dell: Innovator or Laggard? What Do You Think?

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV.

I am on the jury for the Cloud Connect Launch Pad, produced by TechWeb. This is a competition that lets companies present their innovative application (either in development and about to launch, or recently launched) to the Cloud Connect community in March. Feel free to submit an entry, following the contest rules.

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