So what’s a Dell to do? Business Week surveys a group of armchair CEOs who offer a few suggestions for the beleaguered PC maker: make it easier for customers to upgrade their machines, invest more in R&D, get into retailing, put an emphasis on getting service contracts. All well and good, perhaps, but I’d recommend a more fundamental rethinking of the business: Rather than selling personal computers, Dell should start selling personal computing.
Dell’s a company that succeeds by saving other companies money. It looks for places where businesses are overspending, and it moves in with a commoditization strategy. It wrings the excess spending out of the market and, in effect, splits the savings with its customers, padding their bottom lines as well as its own. But the amount of money it can wring out of business PCs is shrinking. PCs are so cheap at this point – and the entire supply chain has become so lean – that there’s just not a lot of savings left to be had. Combine that with sluggish corproate spending on PCs, and it gets real hard to grow as fast as investors want you to grow.
There is an area, though, where there continues to be a good deal of overspending: the labor-intensive tasks associated with PC maintenance. If Dell tackles the whole system of client computing in businesses – if it goes beyond selling just the box – it could well find a lucrative new opportunity to exert its core cost-cutting strength. What would that business look like? It would probably involve providing an integrated system – servers, PCs and, yes, software – for virtualizing the client desktop, enabling the centralization and automation of most traditional maintenance activities. (The game’s already afoot: Microsoft has displayed its serious interest in this kind of business through its recent acquisition of Softricity, which offers such a virtualization system.) Longer term, Dell might even provide the service remotely to clients, from its own utility plants.
What seems likely is that, in most businesses, the PC will become an ever more peripheral device – a thinner client, if not a thin client – that will be very cheap and upgraded on a slower schedule than was necessary in the past. Where the money will be is in supplying personal computing, not personal computers.