Daily Archives: September 19, 2011

Can Dell Think Outside the Box?

Michael Dell has derived great pleasure from HP’s apparent decision to spin off its PC business. As he has been telling the Financial Times and others recently, Dell (the company) believes having a PC business will be a critical differentiator as it pulls together and offers complete IT solutions to enterprise, service-provider, and SMB customers.

Hardware Edge?

Here’s what Dell had to say to the Financial Times about his company’s hardware-based differentiation:

 “We are very distinct from some of our competitors. We believe the devices and the hardware still matter as part of the complete, end-to-end solution . . . . Think about the scale economies in our business. As a company spins off its PC business, it goes from one of the top buyers in the world of disk drives and processors and memory chips to not being one of the top five. And that raises the cost of making servers and storage products. Ultimately we believe that presents an enormous opportunity for us and you can be sure we are going to seize it.”

Well, perhaps. I don’t know the intimate details of Dell’s PC economies of scale or its server-business costs, nor do I know what HP’s server-business costs will be when (and if) it eventually spins off its PC business. What I do know, however, is that IBM doesn’t seem to have difficulty competing and selling servers as integral parts of its solutions portfolio; nor does Cisco seem severely handicapped as it grows its server business without a PC product line.

Consequences of Infatuation

I suspect there’s more to Dell’s attachment to PCs than pragmatic dollars-and-cents business logic. I think Michael Dell likes PCs, that he understands them and their business more than he understands the software or services market. If I am right in those assumptions, they don’t suggest that Dell necessarily is wrong to stay in the PC business or that it will fail in selling software and services.

Still, it’s a company mindset that could inhibit Dell’s transition to a world driven increasingly by the growing commercial influence of cloud-service providers, the consumerizaton of IT, the proliferation of mobile devices, and the value inherent in software that provides automation and intelligent management of “dumb” industry-standard hardware boxes.

To be clear, I am not arguing that the “PC is dead.” Obviously, the PC is not dead, nor is it on life support.

In citing market research suggesting that two billion of them will be sold in 2014, Michael Dell is right to argue that there’s still strong demand for PCs worldwide.  While tablets are great devices for the consumption of content and media, they are not ideal devices for creating content — such as writing anything longer than a brief email message, crafting a presentation, or working on a spreadsheet, among other things.  Although it’s possible many buyers of tablets don’t create or supply content, and therefore have no need for a keyboard-equipped PC, I tend to think there still is and will be a substantial market for devices that do more than facilitate the passive consumption of information and entertainment.

End . . . or Means to an End?

Notwithstanding the PC market’s relative health, the salient question here is whether HP or Dell can make any money from the business of purveying them. HP decided it wanted the PC’s wafer-thin margins off its books as it drives a faster transition to software and services, whereas Dell has decided that it can live with the low margins and the revenue infusion that accompanies them. In rationalizing that decision, Michael Dell has said that “software is great, but you have to run it on something.”

There’s no disputing that fact, obviously, but I do wonder whether Dell is philosophically disposed to think outside the box, figuratively and literally. Put another way, does Dell see hardware as a container or receptacle of primary value, or does it see it as a necessary, relatively low-value conduit through which higher-value software-based services will increasingly flow?

I could be wrong, but Michael Dell still seems to see the world through the prism of the box, whether it be a server or a PC.

For me, Dell’s decision to maintain his company’s presence in PCs is beside the point. What’s important is whether he understands where the greatest business value will reside in the years to come, and whether he and his company can remain focused enough to conceive and execute a strategy that will enable them to satisfy evolving customer requirements.

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Discouraged in US, Huawei Invests Heavily in European Enterprise Push

As we watch Huawei invest heavily and ramp up for a sustained enterprise-networking push in Europe, the Chinese network-equipment provider, which made its name and fortune in telecommunications gear before expanding to mobile devices and enterprise infrastructure, remains conspicuous by its relative absence in the USA.

That’s not how Huawei planned it, of course. The company has made successive bids to establish a meaningful beachhead in the US, and each time it was turned back on national-security grounds.

Thwarted at Every Turn

There was its joint $2.2-billion takeover bid, as a minority player, with Bain Capital for 3Com, its former joint-venture partner in H3C, an acronym for Huawei 3Com. That came to naught when the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) discouraged the prospective buyers from pursuing the deal because of concerns about Huawei’s potential access to Tipping Point and 3Com security technologies. Concerns about the US government’s disposition to Huawei also torpedoed the Chinese company’s efforts to acquire Motorola’s wireless-network business and software vendor 2Wire, even though Huawei reportedly bid at least $100 million more than the successful acquirer in each case.

Since then, Huawei was warned off an acquisition of assets belong to 3Leaf, a cloud-software provider. Last, but perhaps not least from Huawei’s perspective, it has been effectively prevented from making headway in its sale of wireless base stations and other telecommunications infrastructure to America’s leading wireless operators, including Sprint Nextel.

While Huawei has made sales to smaller US service providers, it seems effectively locked out of sales to top-tier wireless operators. Understandably, that limits its growth in the US market, making displacement of incumbent vendors impossible.

Aiming for Enterprise Revenue of $7 Billion Next Year

As such, it’s no wonder Huawei looks to other parts of the world as it rolls out an aggressive plan to grow its new enterprise business to sales of $7 billion next year, from just $2 billion last year and $4 billion this year. By 2015, Huawei sees its enterprise business generating revenue of $15 billion to $20 billion.

That’s a heady growth target, and Huawei clearly is focusing on its domestic market in China, as well as emerging economies in Asia and South America, as well as strong growth in Australia and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA).

I wouldn’t want to say that Huawei has given up on the US market — I don’t think Huawei gives up on anything — but it clearly recognizes political reality and will focus elsewhere for the time being.

For Cisco, Good News and Bad News

For Cisco and other enterprise-networking vendors with significant market share in the United States, that’s good news. The news might not be as good in Europe, where Huawei clearly is girding for intensive engagement with customers and channel partners, including those now in other camps.

Cisco obviously benefits, though it is not alone, if Huawei remains constrained or otherwise discouraged from moving aggressively into the US domestic market. Conversely, however, there is a danger that China, which seems to be influenced at least in part by Huawei and ZTE’s strategic imperatives (see recent developments in Libya), might make life more difficult for Cisco in China if Huawei’s hardships in the US persist.

Although Cisco seems to have stayed on the good side of Chinese authorities hitherto, circumstances and situations are subject to change. These developments, like so many others in a networking market that is now surprisingly fluid, bear watching.