Dell A Coveted Brand? By Whom?

A piece by the fine folks at All Things D talks about Dell and Dell’s hope to be able to be a big player in the tablet market. In it, their Chief Commercial Officer describes Dell as a “coveted brand”. He also makes claims about how Dell is better positioned for the enterprise market. The problem I have is that I don’t believe either are true.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Dell. They are my go-to supplier for Windows and Linux machines. I have had several Dell computers (a desktop, a server and a few notebooks) and I have been very happy with their product. I have had no issues with quality, and the price is fair as far as I’m concerned. Dell is a brand that I have come to trust and rely on.

Not A Brand To Be Coveted

But I don’t covet a Dell. I have many friends and colleagues in the technology world, and none of them covet a Dell. They don’t jump up and down and get all excited when a new Dell model comes out. My non-IT friends view Dell as just another PC manufacturer. It’s another beige, black or white box that runs Windows. They don’t get excited (either positive or negative) about Dell’s latest offerings, and I suspect that most of them have little or no awareness about what Dell has recently released. Dell makes boring but reliable products. It’s what I have come to expect from Dell.

Dell is not Apple. Even during their most notable growth periods, Dell was never Apple. They built commodity machines with commodity prices. They have since started to focus on the industrial design element (and the latest XPS 13 Ultrabook is a very nicely designed machine), but they are still about value, not design. People don’t compulsively pre-order new Dell product a week before release. They aren’t lined up at the few places where you can buy Dell via a retail outlet, eagerly awaiting their latest toy.

Again, Dell has spent the bulk of its existence trying to be a combination of dependability, quality and reasonable prices. If HP or IBM are the Toyota of the IT world (big, boring, dominant), Dell is like Toyota Lite: not exciting, but dependable. It is a brand you rely on, not lust after.

Dell Never Strong On Mobile

Dell has had an incredibly bad track record when it comes to mobile technology. They tried and failed to get into the MP3 player market. They tried briefly to get into PDAs and smartphones, with nothing to show for it. Their recent stab at tablets, the Streak, was a complete flop. Dell gets the desktop. They understand laptops. They have a good handle on servers. But they simply do not understand the mobile computing space. They just can’t seem to get their heads around it. Part of it seems to be completely misreading what the market segment wants. I’m not sure that a second attempt at tablets will matter.

With the MP3 player attempt, they tried the “more storage for lower prices” approach, without noticing that everyone else had already tried it and didn’t put a scratch in iPod marketshare. What was moving iPods was partly their design, partly their usability, but mainly the ecosystem: I could get lots of songs from the iTunes store for reasonably prices, and legally. Yes, some people bought the iPod because of the hype. But hype doesn’t give you 80-90% of the market for the better part of a decade. Hype gets you a temporary bump in marketshare, which declines when the hype wears off. Hype doesn’t last. It turns out that price sensitivity was never an issue in MP3 players.

Their first smartphones arrived at a time when Windows Mobile was in decline, and Blackberry was on the rise in North America. It didn’t matter what the Dell phone did, it wasn’t a Blackberry. It was a case of unfortunate timing, and they were left fighting for the scraps that the rest of the smartphone manufacturers were fighting over.

The Streak was another misreading of the market. In what universe does a “tablet” that is smaller than the tablets everyone else is ignoring make sense? People were buying the various Android tablets in the single-digit hundreds of thousands, but iPads in the millions. Sure, there are good things about smaller tablets, and there are people who would prefer a smaller device. But to go even smaller? You might as well just get a smartphone. And that’s what people did.

Never Say Never, But…

Going up against the iPad isn’t about the hardware. It isn’t even about the brand. It’s about the ecosystem, and right now, the iPad has the strongest ecosystem of all the tablets, except perhaps the Kindle Fire. Even then, the Fire ecosystem is aimed at consumers. The iPad, however, is strong for both the consumer and enterprise market. It holds a huge lead overall, in both consumer and retail. I’m not sure what Dell brings to the table that can unseat the iPad, but I can tell you right now it isn’t about the technical specifications, it isn’t about form-factor and it isn’t about price. And it most certainly isn’t about the brand, and Dell’s brand (while very solid and respectable) isn’t about “desire” or being “coveted”.