Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Seven Questions for Steve Felice, Chief Commercial Officer of Dell

Dell feels like the company that people used to fear but don’t anymore. There was a time, in the late 1990s and the early part of the last decade, when its competitors feared “the Dell effect”: The relentless driving down of selling prices on PCs and servers that made it difficult to compete.

We all know how that turned out. Dell first conquered the PC market, and the ultracompetitive environment it created drove several companies out of the market: IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo; Gateway sold itself to Acer; Hewlett-Packard acquired Compaq. Other lesser players are all but forgotten.

It’s as if Dell was a victim of the hyperefficient world it created. HP is now the world’s biggest PC maker, followed by China’s Lenovo, with Dell in third place on a global basis, as of last quarter.

PCs — consumer and business PCs — still amount to about half of Dell’s business. But there’s another way to look at Dell, and that’s from the point of view of its enterprise business. I learned this in a recent conversation with Steve Felice, Dell’s chief commercial officer. I also learned that the consumer PC business, for which Dell is still widely known in the U.S., amounts to about one-fifth of its business, while its enterprise lines of business, including commercial PCs, amount to 50 percent.

It’s all part of the long-term transformation that has been underway at Dell for a few years now. The company recently did three acquisitions in as many days, the most significant of which was for Wyse Technology.

That caught my attention. But first I wanted Felice’s reaction to the findings of a J.P. Morgan survey of 100 CIOs, saying that the release of Microsoft’s Windows 8 wouldn’t be much of a catalyst for PC buying at large companies.

(We had a pretty good talk, so, arbitrarily, I left in an eighth question from our exchange.)

AllThingsD: Steve, there’s a survey out from J.P. Morgan recently that says that CIOs from large companies don’t see Windows 8 as the sort of thing that would get them buying PCs again. That, to me, could be interpreted as bad news for Dell. Is it?

Felice: I don’t think so. Operating system changes have never been a catalyst, at least not in the corporate world. Consumers and small businesses take off with it right away. Corporations have rollout schedules, and they stick to them. Some of them are just starting to deploy Windows 7. They do their three-year roll-out schedules, and when it’s time they’ll go to Windows 8. About 55 percent of our business are the larger mid-sized and up public companies. The other 45 percent are small businesses and consumer. We’ll see some buying within that 45 percent. On the others, they will go on their normal schedule.

On the enterprise side, I was just with a bunch of CIOs here, and there are some very common themes about why I think they are going to spend some money. And it’s really to continue a transformation of their own infrastructure, to take advantage of virtualization and cloud computing and bigger pipes to transport information. There is a pretty common theme that there is more opportunity to get more out of assets. There is more optimism around moving away from legacy architectures and into open systems. The whole concept of being more “open to open” is there. We view that as good, because we’re the pure play when it comes to moving to open architectures.

What are the CIOs you talk to worried about these days?

Security. It’s easily in the top three concerns. We think we added to our portfolio two of the best assets out there. One is intended to tell you how to figure out what’s going on in their world. That’s what SecureWorks, a company we acquired recently, does. It analyzes your infrastructure and tells you where your threats are coming from and how to prevent them. And then we just announced the acquisition of SonicWall. They built a nice unified threat-management platform. From my viewpoint, it helps enable the movement to open. Some people are afraid to leave the proprietary world because they think it’s more secure.

Where are you on mobile? I read that you just killed a smartphone model. Where is Dell going on the mobile front?

I would characterize the last couple of years as us experimenting with what form factors and operating environments will work. The good thing is that we’ve never overextended ourselves in mobile, yet we’ve launched a lot of products, and we’ve learned a lot from them. We’ve launched tablets — 5-inch, 7-inch, 10-inch. We’ve launched them in emerging markets first, we’ve launched them in developed markets first. We’ve launched smartphones around the world. So we have an active smartphone that we just launched in China, and one in Japan. We just end-of-lifed one in the U.S., which is what I think you’re referring to. We have a road map of other products that are coming up. We are predominantly a commercial-oriented business that has some consumer business, but the lines are blurring.

What we’ve learned is to look at the consumer from the commercial side, not the other way around. Some companies who have done well in mobility are all about consumers and entertainment. And looking at the consumer as an individual, without any regard to how they might interact on the professional side of their life. Executives of any company I talk to say these devices are driving them crazy. They don’t know what’s happening to their information, how they get it back, nor how to interact with the other devices that people are bringing into the workplace. Or how to support them and control them. No one is dealing with that. So, generally, you’re going to see Dell think more broadly about the mobile ecosystem. When you next see devices from Dell, you’ll see us thinking more about the security of them, the end-to-end aspects of managing them, from the data center to the end user.

And yet what I’m hearing from a lot of companies is that they’re just adopting iPads, mainly because the bosses have them and love them. This is how Apple is penetrating the enterprise. How is Dell going to compete with that?

It’s unique, no question. And so it’s got some infatuation aspects to it. But then I talk to these customers, and because there isn’t a lot of alternatives, what they’re tolerating is pretty interesting. They say they have one of those products. Then the problems start coming out. First, the office applications don’t work very well, and they have trouble reading PowerPoint decks. And then they can’t wirelessly print easily, and some days they’re not able to get on the network at the office. And I look at that and say, they’re tolerating a lot because they like the form factor. Our conclusion is that there need to be some alternatives.

We’ve got the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook, and we take it around and show it to customers, and invariably the decision-maker wants one. And then he says that if he had this, he never would have bothered with the tablet. So we took a consumer-oriented product and put pro support on it, and showed that to CIOs and said that if their executive team used it, they’d get the same support as they would on their Latitude product. So when it breaks, someone will come to the office and fix it, and you don’t have to go stand in line at the Apple store. Then we put image management on it. If you want a corporate image that has to be managed, we’ll do that. Institutions want thin and light devices, but they also want the options to secure and support them. The other thing that is happening, with ARM, you’ll get even more form factors.

Well, let’s talk about the PC, then. People keep talking about the decline of the PC. The research houses keep predicting market declines, and sometimes they materialize and sometimes they don’t. But even so, the numbers — at least globally — are flat to slightly up. Yet when you drill down to different regions, you see very different stories, with different countries growing like crazy. How does Dell see this right now?

This is a weighted math problem. The lowest growth rates are in the developed world, which will remain more of a replacement cycle world. The U.S. is like that because PC penetration is very high. Then you go to India and China, where it’s very low. What’s happening is that the emerging markets, where combined, they will be bigger than the developed world. And they are still growing rapidly, so the math is going to reverse itself. You’ll still see low-single-digit growth rates in the developed world, but healthy growth rates in emerging markets — but the emerging markets will be bigger. We still see double-digit growth in China. Look at Indonesia, there’s 300 million people just starting to buy PCs. As these countries industrialize and get more mature, they just need basic computing.

And how do those markets develop?

It comes back to the first thing I talked about. These countries don’t have the legacy baggage. They’ll grow, they’ll industrialize, they’ll need more infrastructure. And what will they buy? They’ll buy standard servers, storage, and open systems. This is happening in China, and its why we’re No. 1 in servers there.

Do you think people still associate Dell with the PC and don’t give it enough credit for its greater focus on the enterprise?

I’d have to say yes. Some of that is our own doing. We have this very large direct model, and we have a tendency to talk to customers one on one. So we tend not to do a lot of brand advertising. So our consumer advertising is more visible. If you ask people randomly what portion of our business is consumer, they’d say it’s more than half, but in fact it’s only about 20 percent. And if you ask people what portion of our business is servers and storage, they don’t know, but it’s more than 50 percent.

If you combine consumer and commercial PCs, how much is that?

About half is PC, and that’s global. But I think with all the acquisitions we’ve done, and a lot more customer testimonials we’re doing, the perception is changing. We’ve done some targeted testing of campaigns where we say, ‘Do you know that Dell does this?’ The perception of Dell as an enterprise provider skyrocketed. Brazil is an interesting case, because we entered the server and storage market there before the PC market. That’s because the only way to really be successful in Brazil with PCs is to have your own manufacturing there, because of the stiff tariffs. So in Brazil, Dell is thought of as an enterprise company. You’ll see more of a commitment this year to do more brand-oriented advertising around the enterprise.


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