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How a private Dell works with customers, and sees its rivals

Patrick Thibodeau | July 2, 2014
The Dell user conference was held in a beach hotel against a calm ocean with no threat of storms. For a company that wants to be known as the strong, silent type, the location may have been perfect.

In a hallway at the conference, Burns asked Dell if he could get one or two hours of his time to present his plan. Dell replied, "What do I need an hour or two for?" Burns recalled. He then quickly outlined the plan. "We don't need a meeting - do it," said Dell.

Burns said that if Dell had been a public company, detailed presentations outlining the financial implications, investments and market reactions would have been expected. "Our decision-making is faster, clearer and a bit crisp," said Burns, since going private.

As with any vendor, Dell executives repeatedly emphasize customer focus. But where it differs from rivals is interpreting what customers may need in the long-term, and therein lies a potential risk for Dell.

If Dell is working on technologies that could lead to very new things, it is being quiet about it. Its rivals aren't. IBM, for instance, is heavily invested in cognitive computing, human-like artificial intelligence systems. It also has a research effort in quantum computing.

For its part, Hewlett-Packard just announced it is developing a new computing architecture it has dubbed the "Machine," based on a new nonvolatile memory technology (no electricity is needed, similar to flash), called memristor, that can hold more data and move it much faster. The system also uses silicon photonics as the communications technology, and a new OS. It could bring enormous computing power to a small box, says HP.

A Dell official called the architecture " laughable," shortly after its announcement, and faulted the approach for a number of reasons, including its need for a new OS and problems it could pose for existing business software.

Dell executives say they will do better by concentrating on the more direct needs of their customers.

"We prescribe more to the practical side of the innovation house than try to grab headlines," said Marius Haas, Dell's chief commercial officer, president, Enterprise Solutions for Dell. "We focus more on what's going to deliver value to customers near term, short-term, versus a hypothetical machines that might evolve over 10 years."

Dell emphasizes strong partnerships with the major ISVs, particularly in development of engineered systems or appliances that integrate computing, storage and networking to simplify deployment. New analytics tools that can be broadly used by employees in a firm is also an important product direction, and was one of the reasons Dell acquired StatSoft in March.

"With the acquisition of StatSoft we gained a lot of staff, very qualified staff across the world," Matt Wolken, general manager, information management products in the Dell Software Group.

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT, sees potential for Dell to become more creative now that's private. "I wouldn't be surprised to see Dell try new, potentially riskier things that would never pass muster with financial analysts, like making bets on emerging markets, developing offbeat products or exploring unusual service solutions and engagements," he said.


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