To Dell and back

They've had their differences, but Michael Dell could still learn something from comeback kid Steve Jobs
Written by Leader , Contributor

Dell and Apple have different approaches to the PC market, as plainly as Ford and Lamborghini build different kinds of cars. The Mac maker has a reputation for designing high-spec machines for an elitist audience. Dell is an expert box-shifter, the past master of just-in-time manufacturing and online purchasing.

Despite their differences, their fates are linked in mirror image. In the mid-1990s, while Dell stealthily stole the PC market away from HP and IBM, Apple languished on the arty margins. Now a resurgent Apple is the darling of the stock market while Dell's miserable performance has seen Wall Street press the eject button on chief executive Kevin Rollins. The company's founder, Michael Dell, has slipped back into the driving seat in a move that echoes a similar period in Apple's history.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he had his work cut out. Unfocused and flabby, Apple had lost its way but, 10 years on, whatever you say about his management style, Jobs has done a brilliant job of turning the company around. Michael Dell now finds himself at a similar juncture, trying to drive through a major overhaul of the company he founded.

Yet while some parity exists, Dell faces a much tougher task. As an effective outsider, Jobs had the perspective and distance to effect the sweeping changes necessary to shake Apple out of its stupor. Michael Dell, on the other hand, has worked side by side with Rollins since 1996 — the PC maker's current situation is their joint legacy, even if Rollins has taken the tumble.

While Jobs came back to an Apple that was bloated and lost, its fundamental approach to design and ethos were still sound. Michael Dell is faced with a company that has failed to innovate while the market changed around it. Laptop sales are outstripping desktop sales, letting Oriental factories undercut Dell's famously efficient manufacturing. Users want either rock-bottom prices with no margin, or something with snap and finesse. Either way, they want solid support. Dell isn't delivering in any of those areas.

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing Michael Dell is Michael Dell. While Jobs muscled his way back into the chief executive role with a zealous fervour, Dell has found himself back in the hot-seat by default. His first job must be to show he's stepping up to the role of chief executive of a truly disruptive company — not simply stepping back in time.

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