Every year, Dell has an analyst event in Austin, Texas, where the company provides an update on what it has been doing and an outlook on plans for the coming year. The company's key message seems to be that it really isn't just about the desktop anymore, and this year Dell tried to present itself not as the outfit that wants to be a solutions company but rather to demonstrate that it has become one.
The nature of the questions also revealed that it is very difficult to change perceptions, as a number of my peers are clearly struggling with seeing Dell as a different company from the vendor they first met decades ago.
Perceptions can lead or follow reality, and engineering-focused companies are often in the latter category because they feel that they have to be able to do something before they can really talk about it. IBM, in this segment, seems just about the only firm that has led with perception and followed with capability, but it is the rare exception. Dell clearly has changed, but getting people to see the change is proving daunting.
Let me share some of the more compelling stories.
The Dell Scooter
One of the more interesting products at Dell's show was an electric scooter from Current Motor. I've been following electric vehicles for some time, and most of the scooters in the market are little better than cheap junk from China. The first exception was a Scooter from Vectrix that, while it was both expensive and, at least initially, had a lot of bugs, it was more of a quality product. However, the firm had difficulties, largely because it tried to do it all alone.
Current Motors went to Dell for help, not only in creating its IT infrastructure, but to work on the electronics in the scooter. The end result was a far more refined product, one that is connected to the Web to locate charging, plan trips around available battery power, and eliminate the typical energy anxiety that surrounds electric vehicles. This last consideration has been a huge problem, both for cars and scooters, because they tend to take a long time to charge and have ranges that are well below those of automobiles. Moreover, charging stations are far less prevalent than gas stations.
Current Motors has actually created a Web-based vehicle wrap service -- something I believed that HP would get done first and that even the more mature automobile industry has yet to figure out. Buyers get a level of visual customization that is currently unmatched in the industry by any car or bike vendor, even though the technology has been around for years. (If you haven't seen it, not only are wraps almost indistinguishable from paint, you can get finishes you can't get with paint.)
Women Tech Entrepreneurs
Dell, whose entrepreneur in residence is a woman, leads the industry in its promotion of women who create business opportunities.
Women are likely the largest demographic that the largely male-populated technology industry has had difficulty understanding or even focusing on. With women running two of the largest tech companies -- IBM and HP -- it is kind of amazing that Dell, with Michael Dell at the helm, is leading in this effort. You'd assume that the other two firms would be leading here, but you'd be wrong.
The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network is a unique resource that gathers, helps and promotes enterprising women who are bringing new, unique and compelling products and services into the market. The scooter company above was created by a serial woman entrepreneur.
This focus gives Dell an almost unchallenged advantage in this class of business. Why neither IBM nor HP is leading here is one of the mysteries of the technology market, but Dell is clearly taking this advantage to the bank and, as with all groups that are undervalued, a vendor that provides any group with the attention it deserves will likely always be valued over vendors that don't.
A Very Different Dell
For this article, I focused on two areas that not only showcase a different Dell, but that reflect a unique company in the industry. I'm not aware of any other technology company in Dell's class that would actually help a client build a scooter and go as far as to make that product unique in its own market. (NVIDIA and Intel share the same ethos but they build parts.)
And Dell's unique focus on helping women succeed stands out in sharp contrast to its competitors that are actually led by women. That is one of those things that should be on "news of the weird" but likely speaks to the heavily male-oriented industry that hasn't kept up with its own leadership changes.
In both cases, these examples not only highlight a transformed company, they indicate that the firm is going farther to help its customers than others may be willing to go. But first, the customers need to know that Dell can do this, and then ask. Getting customers to see this very different Dell remains the company's most daunting task.
Rob is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance, and Security. Currently, Rob writes on emerging technology, security, and Linux for a wide variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.