Five things the Inspiron Duo tells me about Dell's strategy (or lack of one)

Dell's new convertible Inspiron Duo is half laptop, half tablet, and arrives in the wake of the Streak tablet and Aero smartphone. What's it all mean? Five reasons why the company's consumer strategy is in trouble.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Dell on Tuesday revealed the "Inspiron Duo" during a keynote speech at the Intel's IDF conference this week. At the same time, it managed to reveal all that is wrong with its consumer strategy.

This "hybrid" device is essentially a laptop computer with a removable display -- we've seen this before, right Lenovo? -- and according to Engadget's Ross Miller, sports a 10-inch screen, dual-core Atom N550 and Microsoft Windows 7 Premium.


It should be released "at the end of the year." (Reminder: it's September.)

Other than that, we don't know anything -- no price, nothing.

And yet I cringe. And this video will make you cringe too:

Where's the design mojo? (Adamo, anyone?)

Why is Dell bothering us with what is effectively a glorified netbook?

Is this really the best Dell has going?

With those questions in mind, here are five reasons why Dell doesn't quite get consumers -- and why Dell ought to just stick to the enterprise, where it has a stronger strategy.

1.) Dell doesn't have a coherent mobile plan.

Dell first made a splash with an Android-based smartphone called the Mini that made it to U.S. shores as the Aero on AT&T. (Seen any walking around? Yeah, me neither.)

Then it came out with the Streak, which is, in so many words, a large-format Mini. Tech press excitedly touted it as the (expensive, undersized) answer to the Apple iPad, but it's no such thing. (Update: it's now an enterprise/industry play. Way to goose up publicity until now, guys!) Yet the device is supposed to lay the foundation for the company's future in the fast-growing mobile industry.

And now we have this: a device that is somehow both devices, sort of. The branding differs (it's in the laptop camp, and uses Windows) and its existence, in a way, undermines Dell's Streak strategy before it's even off the ground. How do all these products inform each other? On paper, they offer varying degrees of mobility. In reality, they offer contradictory solutions for communication and content consumption.

2.) Dell is still stuck in the hardware business.

Any company that has to focus on technological novelty -- it's colorful! it swivels! -- is missing something where it counts. The rap on Dell for years has been that the company is tethered to the hardware business that made it famous, despite a race to the bottom in margins.

While that still holds true, the effects of the company's "new culture" remain to be seen -- in the consumer electronics space, that is. Dell is making lots of money on the commercial side of the house, and it's a serious of interesting and occasionally shrewd moves. So if the focus is on the enterprise, why bother with whiz-bang consumer products at all, if they're only going to fall short?

3.) Dell lacks vision.

In the consumer electronics space. All of the products Dell has offered are me-too additions to the market: the Aero is a lackluster Android handset destined to play second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) fiddle to the iPhone on AT&T; the five-inch Streak solves no user problem as offered; the new Inspiron Duo appears to be neither a good laptop nor a good tablet. To me, this says there's a lot of glancing sideways going on, and not enough looking forward. How does the Inspiron Duo fit into the mobile portfolio? Or the laptop portfolio? Or more importantly: how does this fit into Dell's overall strategy?

4.) Dell is run by technologists.

Like the Aero and the Streak, the Inspiron Duo appears to be exactly the sum of its parts. No more. It lacks coherence as a product. It lacks a distinct user experience. It does not rise above its components, and judging by the way it was introduced (novelty! Intel inside!), it never will.

5.) Dell is grasping for relevance.

There are ideas coming out of Round Rock, and that's a good thing. The problem is that poor ones are moving too far along the development cycle.

The Adamo laptop comes to mind -- an ultrathin premium laptop, heavily advertised in women's magazines, that was extremely expensive in the wake of an economic downturn and, to boot, not superior, even from a hardware standpoint. (Hailed as a MacBook Air killer, the Adamo showed up to the fight over weight with an underpowered processor. But hey, at least it was marketed appropriately.)

The Streak is a novel size -- bigger than scrunched smartphones, smaller than heavy tablets -- but uses out-of-the-box Android. I don't know what it's supposed to be used for, and it has no content ecosystem to speak of beyond the Android market. That's a problem.

Now the Inspiron Duo is supposed to succeed where the Lenovo U1 Hybrid (introduced at CES 2010; still not out-of-the-gate) thus far failed.

The final word

There is plenty going on at Dell, but not much in the way of the consumer market. That's OK if you're an investor, but if you're a consumer, it leaves one wanting.

With the Inspiron Duo, as with all the products mentioned in this post, I simply wonder why Dell brings them to market at all. They are sketches of products, interesting and a necessary step but ultimately not for mass consumption. So why do they keep showing up at press conferences with empty promises?

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