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Technology 101: Dell & Keep It Simple Stupid

Dell LogoI’ve been covering IT for quite a while, starting around the time of the first white-collar revolt back in 1981. Ironically enough, the personal computer uprising was primarily initiated by IBM, who at that time was the epitome of a buttoned-down, my-way-or-the-highway approach. Among the vendors jumping on the PC bandwagon was Dell, and for most of the next two decades it pretty much dominated this segment — with largely plain-vanilla technology — because of its flexibility of delivering PCs the way customers wanted, and a supply chain model that was the envy of the industry.

The next major crack in the IT Curtain was Y2K, when vendors and analysts (not to mention journalists) cackled about the end of computing because of legacy code that would break in the new millennium. However, on January 1, 2000, the world kept on ticking, and estimates were that at least a third of the money spent on fixes and new, “Y2K-proof” hardware and software was wasted. That was considered the beginning of the end of our infatuation with feeds and speeds, and the rise of business value and return on investment. Vendors had to provide some proof that their technologies actually addressed real business needs, and one of the ways Dell differentiated itself was by trying to keep things simple and reduce and/or remove complexity. Back then its business was primarily PCs and servers, and it continued to capture a more-than-healthy slice of the IT pie.

There are a number of trends impacting today’s IT multiverse, from virtualization to mobility, BYOD — PC Revolution 2.0 — and data doubling every two years, or less. There’s also IT as a service and its redneck family of kissing cousins : Infrastructure as a service (IaaS), Platform as a service (PaaS), Software as a service (SaaS), Network as a service (NaaS), Storage as a service (StaaS), Security as a service (SECaaS), Data as a service (DaaS), Desktop as a service (DaaS), Database as a service (DbaaS), Test environment as a service (TeaaS), API as a service (APIaaS), Backend as a service (BaaS), Integrated development environment as a service (IDEaaS), Integration platform as a service (IpaaS) [my thanks to Wikipedia]. To pay for this Brave New World, IT spending has surged, and is projected to total $3.7 trillion in 2013, according to the latest forecast by Gartner.

However, I’ll argue that the more things change, the more they stay the same, which I think sounds a lot better in the original French: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Once you get beyond the very real ‘Wow’ factor, it almost always comes down to what can it do for me, and does it enable me to do something better that I want to do, or save me time, money and/or resources. Oh, and by the way, if you can do it faster, cheaper, and make it easier/simpler than the other guys, that’s even better.

IBM has done a pretty good job of reinventing itself and getting in front of where customers are pushing it. HP is still very much a work in progress as it tries to decide what it wants to be after PCs and printers. Oracle continues to forge ahead, largely successfully adding a hardware business, but in many ways it has adopted the old IBM philosophy that looks very vulnerable in the new, customer-first environment. And while Cisco has done a much better job of creating an identity that resonates with customers than HP, it too is in the process of right-sizing.

Which brings me to Dell. All of the aforementioned large systems vendors offer very complex solutions, and for the most part, that’s how they sell them to large IT shops with in-house or outsourced expertise readily available. While the market will determine the ultimate winners and losers, Dell has chosen to hitch its wagon to simplicity, to making things less complex. And because it has its roots in the small and medium businesses where IT resources are scarce, the KISS principle —  Keep It Simple Stupid — is necessary.

Like HP, Dell has been bushwhacked by the commodity PC/server market and is struggling to move forward. It has decided to go private, and allow itself to focus on growing the non-PC/server side of the business, including storage, networks and software. Those areas are growing relatively strongly, albeit from a smaller base, and if it can continue to focus on addressing customer needs quickly, affordably and reducing complexity, then the future should be bright.

DISCLAIMER: #1: Dell is a former – and current – customer.

DISCLAIMER: #2: I own shares in several of these companies.

DISCLAIMER: #3: All opinions expressed are my own and are in no way reflective of DISCLAIMERS 1 & 2.

Image Credit: Dell (via Wikimedia Commons)