Dell at the Crossroads

As I read the news coverage of Dell’s fourth-quarter financial results, I noticed a salient question from Shannon Cross of Cross Research:

“You have higher revenue but we didn’t see it on the bottom line. The question is, what is the potential profitability of their model?”

That’s a good question. I don’t have the answer, and I’m not sure Dell does. Which begs another question: Just what is Dell’s strategic focus?

The company is caught between a rock and a hard place. When Michael Dell returned to the company, he said he would boost gross margin and find a way to bring back the balanced profitability and growth for which Dell was known in its halcyon days.

He’s struggled to recreate the old magic, but it’s not because he’s doing things differently from how he and his team did them previously. In fact, the problem is that Dell hasn’t adapted enough to current circumstances. Dell needs to make some hard choices, and that means answering some difficult questions.

For example, should it continue to play in the consumer-PC market? I think the answer to this question depends primarily on whether it has the wherewithal to succeed in the market, and secondarily on whether the company can reduce its component and production costs to the point where it makes decent margins on sales. As things stand, Dell isn’t getting it done, and one has to wonder whether the situation will change. As it slides down the PC market-share charts, its economies of scale won’t improve.

The company also has a branding problem in the consumer space, and that exacerbates the situation. The tarnished brand can be burnished, but that will take sustained effort and resources, both of which might be more gainfully employed in other areas of the business.

Recently, Dell has added a smartphone and a five-inch tablet PC to its consumer-product portfolio. I understand the motivations. Dell wants to get a piece of the relatively high-margin smartphone market, and it’s also keen to ride the iPad wave in the seemingly resurgent tablet space. However, does Dell have a market mandate to play in these spaces? Does it have a reasonable expectation of being anything more than a non-medal contender in those areas?

A given market segment might be attractive, for reasons of margin or other considerations, but not every company should try to compete in it. The dynamics of the aforementioned consumer segments overwhelmingly favor the top market-share players, and I don’t think Dell can become a leader in smartphones or tablets, especially with products that seem compromised, inspired by calculations of margin percentage rather than by an implicit understanding and appreciation of consumer interest.

On the other sides of Dell’s business, there’s promise. In the SMB and enterprise markets — as well as in verticals bolstered by its acquisition of Perot Systems — Dell can compete effectively and win. It has a decent brand, it has the customer relationships, it has a reasonably attractive product and services portfolio, it’s growing its profile in the emerging BRIC economies (though I wonder whether any technology company that is not of China can truly thrive for long in the Chinese market).

In those business-oriented markets, the company also possesses a good appreciation of what the customers want today and what they might want tomorrow. As some news coverage suggests, Dell might be discounting more than is necessary to maintain presence in SMB, enterprise, and government accounts. But, with careful calibration, that problem can be readily fixed.

Another area that Dell needs to reconsider, on the product side, is its networking strategy. I think this is an area where it cannot be ambiguous. Dell can follow HP’s lead, and go all in against Cisco as a direct competitor, or it can to take a software-based, services-led approach that is agnostic toward network infrastructure, responding impartially and objectively to customer needs. Sometimes that will mean working with Cisco and its gear and sometimes not, but it doesn’t entail the same stark dynamics as an unambiguously antagonistic relationship.

Here’s the question that should drive that decision: In all honestly, and without the reality distortion that comes form wearing one’s own marketing goggles, does Dell believe that enterprise customers want the integrated, proprietary data-center pitch of Cisco’s Unified Computing System (UCS)? If Dell believes that’s what enterprise customers want, and that HP will follow suit once it has integrated 3Com into its full-service offerings, then Dell probably has no choice but to acquire and own the necessary networking assets to play the same game.

If Dell doesn’t believe that UCS is what customers want, that customers will seek an open, interoperable approach to data-center integration, then the company ought to take an IBM-like, integrator’s approach to the market. It can leverage Perot, focus on extending its software portfolio in areas such as data-center management and orchestration, build value at the application layer, investing in the glue that brings everything together rather than in the underlying plumbing.

Dell knows what its customers are telling it. The company just has to listen to what’s being said.

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